Three Poems by John Milton

Three Poems by John Milton,  okay it is four, again.  I could not resist the last one.


On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.  His state
Is kingly;  thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”


On His Dead Wife   (following the death of his wife after childbirth)

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Who Jove’s great Son to her glad Husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washt 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 heav’n without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But O as to embrace me she enclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.


Sonnet to the Nightingale
O nightingale that on yon blooming spray
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still,
Thou with fresh hopes the lover’s heart dost 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 linked that amorous power to thy soft lay,
Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of hate
Foretell my hopeless doom, in some grove nigh;
As thou from year to year hast sung too late
For my relief, yet had’st no reason why.
Whether the muse or love call thee his mate,
Both them I serve, and of their train am I.


On The University Carrier Who Sickn’d In The Time Of His Vacancy, Being Forbid To Go To London, By Reason Of The Plague
Here lies old Hobson, Death hath broke his girt,
And here alas, hath laid him in the dirt,
Or els the ways being foul, twenty to one,
He’s here stuck in a slough, and overthrown.
‘Twas such a shifter, that if truth were known,
Death was half glad when he had got him down;
For he had any time this ten yeers full,
Dodg’d with him, betwixt Cambridge and the Bull.
And surely, Death could never have prevail’d,
Had not his weekly cours of carriage fail’d;
But lately finding him so long at home,
And thinking now his journeys end was come,
And that he had tane up his latest Inne,
In the kind office of a Chamberlin
Shew’d him his room where he must lodge that night,
Pull’d off his Boots, and took away the light:
If any ask for him, it shall be sed,
Hobson has supt, and ‘s newly gon to bed.


I could not resist this last, the demise of Hobson.  Do I spot humour and simple ‘fondness’ for a character?  Anyway, I used to know Slough ( a town threatened by Betjeman’s ‘bombs’ but then recanted) and understand how he might have felt…..but then so did Milton, though it was a few miles away.  Actually it is doubtful if ‘Slough’ existed in his day and a few miles could seem a long way!   And of course, I deliberately misinterpret Milton’s slough for the town…. apologies to Slough.
slough: definition: ‘A place of deep mud or mire’; ‘a state of dejection’: as noted by Longman Concise English Dictionary :

slough (Saxon word): ‘A deep miry place;  a hole full of dirt’: as defined by Dr Samuel Johnson’s first edition: A Dictionary of the English Language

Some places near Slough:   Eton (College), Windsor (Castle), Dorney Wick and Upton (both ‘Royal’ or connected residences in historic times). Stoke Poges(re Gray’s Elegy)

Odd facts:  William Herschel built wooden astronomical telescopes in his garden in Slough.  I read somewhere that much of his significant data was collected and minutely recorded by his sister so she should be accorded a similar respect.   (Perhaps, in the astronomical world, she is, I do hope so).   He/they should be more highly and widely regarded: for further information see the link: William Herschel or Contact Slough Museum.
What is left of ‘Montem mound’ was once used as a place for Eton College boys to beg (but only one day a year, apparently) from travellers along the A4 (Main London to Bristol road for millennia), which is also not many yards from the site of a highway-man’s operating area.  Or at least where he was hanged for said robberies of people and horse and coaches…. Ledger was his name.    Also:        Charles Dickens rented a cottage for Nelly Ternan in Slough High Street for a few years.     I have read these facts but have failed to give bibliographic detail, for which I apologise.

I diverge:

See other Milton Poems on sites in Useful links, or books:  Longman Annotated English Poets, Oxford Book of English Verse, etc etc.


Gray’s Elegy in the Guardian, comment and note

There is an  interesting article I have linked, in the Guardian, poem of the week (some long time ago now) by Carol Rumen on ‘Gray’s Elegy’.    She offers a link to the complete poem but includes the first fifteen verses and brief analysis on those and further.   Carol Rumen’s  page is a site well worth visiting for interesting thoughts on poetry far and wide…..

The first verse or two of  ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’  may well be the ones that today’s older generation recall from memory though I suspect many will recall having read the verses rather than memorising them. Having said that you only have to read the first two verses a few times and the repetitive rhythm and rhyme-scheme which is natural heart-beat to us, combined with the descriptive alliteration throughout lends itself to memory.  Even today.

Here the hesitation creeps in because poetry today is not what it used to be!   A bit like nostalgia, if you will forgive the aside.  In her article Carol bemoans the fact that the educational system of today no longer caters for ‘impoverished young Miltons and Hampdens’ and worries for their literacy in current financial predicaments for students and the school curriculum.  A short paragraph that highlights a failing in the system for poetry, maybe literature, even literacy but to focus on the specifics of poetry,  it does not consider that the bulk of poetry gets ever larger as years go by.  The language and styles of poetry have exploded, maybe not exponentially but massively, since the death of Queen Victoria.  The movements from the Americas and the changes in writing style of people crossing the period into the First World War such as ‘the Georgians’ and T S Eliot and numerous others of the period, some of whom, like Edward Thomas produced good poetry but had short productive (poetic) lives.  Life -style was changing as industry and technology was changing, all in mod and speed.

Today, language and rhythms from around the world are part of everyday life…and therefore poetry.  So, my point is that though we may all sadden at the loss of poetry (literature) in schools in general, what could be described as relevant literature is now so wide open to discussion across time and distance, now almost removed by technology, that it is inevitable some once-revered lines should be cut.  Relevance and connectivity with the audience of today is where the excitement should be created.  A student of poetry, like any artist, will always find their way to the past in order to re-invent the future.  So much to talk about, so little time!  I suspect Carol knows all of this and much more  and has taken a brief  line to make a single point and I have simplisticly taken the bait!

Back to Gray’s Elegy:

This was a hugely successful publication when first published, many editions rushed out as its fame spread.  A great poem of the day but Thomas Gray never published much more than a thousand lines of poetry in total.

I never learned the poem by heart, have probably not read many more than the listed stanzas.  I have, however, visited the memorial put up by John Penn to the memory of Thomas Gray and the hugely successful publication of the ‘elegy’.   As children we used to walk as a family group to the memorial every Easter Sunday, weather permitting, and a few other times too!   The reason why was never given, the question why never asked.  I suspect is was just a nice walk but may have misadvertantly planted that early germ of mystery about poets and poetry.   Recently, in the interest of soothing old imaginings, I have been back several times and being in the close vicinity of the memorial has been interesting.  The same memory is there.  The grass surround, the ha-ha and the field with the tree standing magnificently defiant in the meadow.  Get the position right and it’s branches seem to give a green canopy over the sarcophagus shaped memorial.


plate from Gray’s Elegy, project gutenberg

Reading around the subject leads to the suggestion that most of the poem was written when Gray was at Cambridge though the quiet inspiration no doubt flowed from his frequent visits as he lived close by.   The solitude of this  place with view of trees and hedge at edge of the now extended churchyard can still be felt and easily imagined if you just filter your mind back over two hundred years.  This is as a lone visitor today.  If the small car-park across the road is full then that quiet spot may well be lost to snap and chatter of enthusiasts.  The monument itself must be several hundred yards from the church and out of sight of most, except for the odd farm-hand.  All so quiet in late 18th century English countryside.

The small copse of trees backdropping the monument and its part-surrounding ha-ha have been owned by the National Trust for some years.  In 2014 the copse is due to be planted with wild flowers and the ha-ha highlighted and reconstructed where needed.

gray monumet

Gray’s monument, Feb.2014 photo by Wordparc The photograph of the monument is facing approximately north.

 A photo to the west, to include the church did not work.  It was too far away and only the roof-ridge and top of tower were visible.   The bare tree looks too bleak.  In summer the foliage create a nice ‘mantle’ for the monument.

stoke poges church engraving

St Giles’ Stoke Poges, from project gutenberg

st giles st poges

st Giles’ Stoke Poges , 2014 photo by Wordparc

The small church of St Giles’ is worth a visit and you can pass Gray’s tomb and that of his mother and her sister.  The side chapel was renovated last century and the bells moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money.  However, the plate above shows monument with church in view, with a small spire.  There is none.  Look at  plate here for more accuracy.  There is enough ivy for all!  The  figure sitting with back to the church wall may be a reader of the poem rather than Gray writing it as two tombs are clearly visibly.  You choose!  Gray’s churchyard is very pleasant and worth a visit.

I have not read that a spire ecer existed. Note above, that the bells were moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money, hence the  roofing to the tower as seen in the photograph.

  Which neatly leads me to that tolling bell and ivy-mantled tower:   The plate offers all the ivy you may need but it is more than likely that the sound and site in mind at the time of writing was actually the Church of St. Laurence in Upton-cum-Chalvey, some six miles away.  This bell tolling nightly curfew across the fields to Eton College.  Possibly heard from St. Giles but more likely just from his time at Eton.  The tombs by the church wall, sadly, are not very eloquent today and as several photos are included I decided against them at this time.  Quiet reflection brought together ideal elements for Gray and the poem stands for itself.  It is interesting to read and see the influences on any ‘art’ but it is still the ‘artist’ that fuses the idea into substance.

st laurence church 1

st Laurenc church. photo by wordparc

St. Laurence is another delightful little church. It fell into serious dereliction and was saved from collapse in 1850 and rebuilt and re-dedicated in 1851.   It had been a wooden sided Parish church built on elements of a Norman church, some of which can be seen.  Today the tower  is not ivy- clad but the church and churchyard sit in a quiet corner a little away from the now Parish church of St Mary’s, Slough.

Sir William Herschel and wife are buried in a vault near the tower.

I have wandered away from the poem, have not quoted nor analysed but hope I have added a tiny bit of colour and place of today.  Look back at the illustration of the church and see and think of the solitary reader, and enjoy.