Milton in the Modern
The Invention of Personality
WHAT IF WE KNEW, to its determining hour, when Milton wrote each of his sonnets? He can't have meant, in the ripeness or rottenness of their conception, for them to appear together, the way they do as specimen days in some collections. Yet he published them together himself, gaggled like geese in both 1645 and 1673, omitting only those the mercurial temper of politics rendered inopportune. Gathered together, yet rendered apart— Milton's two dozen sonnets vary within and without, divided from each other and from the tradition. The sonnets are a peculiar instance, a peculiarly conflicted instance, where tradition proposes and the artist disposes, where the poet's inheritance permits his deviation from tradition, and only the inheritance permits such deviation. Milton's sonnets represent one of the first moments—perhaps the first moment—when a poet writing in English took his form for granted, when the poet's respect for the rules required him to break the rules. Where the innocence of form was lost, the moment of Eliot's dissociation of sensibility began. If we believed in such things, that would be the beginning of the modern.
The sonnet is an old form in English but older elsewhere, first picked up by poets who showed their taste by what they collected in travels to the Continent, whether objets d'art or the trifle of a language, some affectation or affection of manner, a trivial poetic form. It would be impossible to recreate the sonnet-mad decade of the 1590s, when young men