John Milton, Anglus: The Quest for an English Identity

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John Milton, Anglus, nobile Inglese, Londinensis - this is how Milton's Italian friends and acquaintances refer to him in complimentary poems and epigrams, many of which Milton printed in the Testimonia prefatory to the Poemata, the Latin volume of the book of Poems published in 1645. Indeed in the tributes themselves it was the Englishness of the polyglot traveler as well as his learning and eloquence that these men of Italy thought noteworthy to call attention to. In his couplet to Milton Giovanni Battista Manso could not refrain from calling up the pun that Pope Gregory had first made on Anglus and Angelus:

Other comments on Milton's Englishness occur in the epigrams and the ode that follow. The Roman poet Giovanni Salzilli places Milton in an English landscape, declaring that the Thames itself would proclaim Milton triumphant over the rival Italian rivers, Mincius and Sebethos, and the rival poets, Vergil and Tasso, associated with them. Thereby he alludes not only to Milton's future as an epic poet, but also to the peculiar Englishness of his future poetry. Another of the Roman encomiasts, Selvaggi, also declares that England boasts of Milton, as Greece and Rome had of Homer and Vergil: "Grxcia Mxonidem, jactet sibi Roma Maronem, /Anglia Miltonum jactat utrique parem. "

However, it is the Florentine Antonio Francini in his long Italian ode who makes Milton's Englishness the key to his eminence as man and poet. England, he proclaims, a land separated from the rest of the world by the ocean, most knows how to produce heroes, and Milton is pre-eminent among them for the virtue that he has brought from his native sky to the realms of France and Italy. Learned though he is in the idioms of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Rome, he has by his own virtue raised English into their company. By him the Thames becomes the rival of the Arno and is lifted even higher than the poetic river, the Greek Permessus. These extravagant tributes tell us that not only did Milton make himself at home among his Italian hosts, but that he singled himself out as a poet who was particularly representative of his country.

The poetry that Milton brought to Italy that impressed his Italian hosts was, of course, the Latin verse that later was to follow the Testimonia in the Poemata of the 1645 volume: the elegies and epigrams of the Elegiarum Liber and the miscellaneous verse of the Sylvarum Liber. We do not know exactly which Latin poems he read at the meetings of the academies of Florence and other Italian cities that he visited. However, it was his skill as a Latin poet that impressed his Italian acquaintances and made them compare him to Homer, Vergil, and Tasso. Little of Milton's Latin verse would today suggest the future epic poet that Milton would become, and still less would seem to warrant comparison with the classical poets Homer and Vergil or the modern Italian poet Tasso. Thus we may take these effusive compliments, which, as Milton himself explains in the prefatory note to the Testimonia, as reflecting not so much his own virtues, but his friends' generosity, However, what remains striking in the Testimonia is the degree to which his Italian friends attribute Milton's genius to his Englishness. After his return to England Milton kept in contact with his Italian friends, and years later in Defensio Secunda he records his memories of the Italian journey and expresses the fondest of regards for the men of that country who had received him into their academies and paid tribute to him as Johannes Miltonus, Anglus.2

It is not surprising, of course, to find in those Latin poems composed in Italy and upon his return to England that Milton should advertise his own Englishness since assuredly he had been making himself known as an Englishman among Italians. But we find even in the earlier Latin elegies, and it may be partly that which his Italian friends were reacting to, that Milton adopts a certain stance as an Englishman, speaking of his own identity as a Londoner and of his loyal relationship to his native land. …