Consider groups of poems, along with what you learn from Second Defence, the biographies on pages 6-28, and Aubrey's biographical sketch, to flesh out Milton's life and times. Focus your individual attention on the sonnets assigned to you or to your group. I include below an old handout that will help those in group 5. Those in other groups might take my questions on 19 and 23 as a model for working up their own sets of questions and comments. The handout concludes with two sonnets that suggest Milton's influence on the Romantic period and on the sonnet. Note that there are two sonnets numbered 17 and that there are no sonnets numbered 20 and 22; numbering, apparently, was a moving target. Milton wrote 23 Petrarchan sonnets: the numbered sonnets + number 17 twice + the sonnet to Cyriack Skinner on page 29 = 23. Editors also count as sonnets the canzone on page 81 and Milton's 20-line tailed sonnet, "On the New Forcers of Conscience."
Group 1: Pages 78-84, sonnets 1-6 and the canzone (love)
Group 2: Page 87-88, sonnets 9 and 10; page 252-54, sonnets 13 and 14 (praise of friends)
Group 3: Page 86, sonnet 8; pages 254-55, sonnet 18 (civil war; Piedmont massacre)
Group 4: Pages 256-58, sonnets 17 and 21 (on recreation)
Group 5: Page 29, sonnet to Skinner; page 85, sonnet 7; 255-56, sonnet 19; pages 258-59, sonnet 23; page 53-54, "On Time" (work, blindness, time); cf. letters to a friend and to Leonard Philaras, 1049-50 and 1055-56); assign multiple people to this group
Group 6: Pages 250-52, sonnets 11 and 12; page 265-66, "On the new forcers of Conscience under the Long PARLIAMENT" (religious matters)
Group 7: Pages 29, 289-92, sonnets 15-17 (political/military leaders)
2. The following words can help you understand the flow of meaning in sonnet 19: resignation, grief, questioning. Put them in the correct order and be able to identify, by line numbers, the parts of the poem that they sum up.
3. Find parallels in the sestet to the following words in the octet: "talent" and "labour."
4. What does the last line of the poem mean? Would you understand it differently if you knew that Milton is alluding to "Wait on the Lord; be of good courage and He shall strengthen thy heart. . . . Wait, I say, on the Lord" (Psalm 27:14)?
5. What is the moral of sonnet 19? In other words, how would you sum up its meaning in one sentence?
6. How does Milton's attitude toward blindness in sonnet 19 contrast with that in sonnet 23? It may be helpful to look back at the stages in question 2 above.
7. How does sonnet 23 conflate the Admetus-Alcestis myth and the Orpheus-Eurydice myth? See page 259, note 1.
8. When Milton writes PL 3.40-55, how is his attitude toward blindness like or unlike what he expresses in the two sonnets? Do you see any parallel to sonnet 23, especially in line 44? Is the epic invocation in some way a solution to the problem the sonnets describe?
9. Sink your teeth into the following critical problem: Milton is writing about his first or second wife: Mary Powell or Katherine Woodcock. Consider the evidence in the poem and the following information in order to make an argument that he had one woman or the other in mind.
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return: