Saturday, April 24, 2010

John Milton's Sonnet Calling for God's Vengeance

Peter Waldo
Statue at the Luther Memorial
(Image from Wikipedia)

Peter Waldo (c. 1140 – c. 1218) was a 12th- to 13th-century Catholic who founded a spiritual movement that came to be called the Waldensians (French: Vaudois) and that was declared heretical for rejecting clerical authority. The movement became a sect and survived in Piedmont under protection of the Duke of Savoy and his descendants, though often persecuted. The sect gravitated toward Calvinism during the Protestant Reformation, and in 1655, the then Duke of Savoy demanded their return to Catholicism. Upon their refusal, he attacked them with a combined Catholic army of Irish, French, and Italians.

Times being what they were (much like today, actually, with our own religious fanaticisms), John Milton wrote a prayer to God imploring vengeance, but perhaps also seeking more mundane sources of revenge since he wrote the prayer as a sonnet for publication:
Sonnet 18
On the late Massacher in Piemont
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter'd Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship't Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll'd
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl'd to the Hills, and they
To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O're all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow
A hunder'd-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, April 17, 2008]
You can click on the underlined words to read Thomas Luxon's notes. I call attention to "Mother with Infant," for Luxon cites John Carey, and I have an edition of the work cited, John Milton: Complete Shorter Poems (London: Longman, 1971), which on page 410 tells us:
Cromwell's agent, Sir Samuel Morland, in his account of the massacre (History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont (1658) 333-384) records that the wife of Giovanni, son of Pol Parise, was hurled down a precipice with her baby in her arms -- the baby survived (363); that Jacopo Pecols's wife and son were thrown down the rocks at Taglioretto (368); and that a woman and her baby were hurled down a precipice in the mountains of Villaro (374).
At least three mother-and-child atrocities are thus recorded. Milton, however, uses the singular. I suppose that the plural would be less effective -- a single death being a tragedy, multiple deaths being a statistic -- but I also wonder if the expression "Mother with Infant" might be a subtle, ironic thrust at the Catholic soldiers who revered the Madonna and Child but killed the "Mother with Infant."

The longer expression "Mother with Infant down the Rocks" reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, but there's surely no association to that in Milton's mind.

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12 Comments:

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Not directly bearing on this (or maybe it does):

When I was in grad school the late Jay Meek, professor of creative writing (poetry) once took a student to task for writing sonnets. She was 30-something, female, wistful, sensitive, over-weight, vulnerable, a bit reclusive in spirit. It was a small, post-grad creative writing class, and she was a native of the high planes of North Dakota, unlike the rest of us who had come from elsewhere. I sat quietly watching as he gave her "the dread look" English professors use on grad students--a threatening, owl-like, bullying, intolerant, tyrannical sort of glower. I am sure you know what I refer to. The atmosphere was very chilly, and there was something crushed in the poor woman--you could see it in her face. Not knowing or understanding (and not wishing to get "the look" myself), I said nothing. The woman never came back to class, and I can clearly remember at the time how destructive I thought the whole scene had been.

What is wrong, for goodness sake, with writing sonnets?

On another occasion I was in Meek's office and he was expressing approval with very gentle nods and a whispered "yes, yes" when I told him of my enthusiasm for Melville, but then he shook his head and wore a mildly pained expression as I told him I also admired Hawthorne. I never mentioned Hawthorne to him again.

Meek died a few years ago. His death released him from a dreadful struggle with Alzheimer's, and one has to wonder, in those moments of lucid memory he might have had, if he ever chanced to recall that student who wrote those dreadful sonnets, and how he stood up for the cause of his school, and prohibited her from writing verse in that dreadful form? Surely his integrity in this important matter is something to remark at, and fully meriting memorialization here in the Annals of the Electronic Wilderness, in the form of a comment to a blog.

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the comment, Carter. I can't imagine anything wrong with a sonnet. I've written a few. I hope that the woman merely quit the class, not the writing.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:38 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I saw incredible abuses when I was with that department. I never saw her again. I think she dropped out of the masters program, actually. She wasn't a graduate assistant, but someone from out in the countryside--up there it is an incredibly flat and ugly wasteland broken up by the occasional cottonwood or grain silo--who wanted to do a masters.

It could be he the sonnet form was a Romantic "left over?" I don't know.... We wrote lots of modernist blank verse, and a few sestinas in the course. Meek told us to use "I" in the first or second line. We HAD to use "I" at the beginning or it wasn't a proper poem.

The department was marked by a curious combination of bureaucracy, arrogance, anal-retention, bald incompetence, old school 50s communists, middle-America boobs and dullards, new left activists, postmodern afflictions and righteous indignation (this was in the early 90s when the Woodstock generation was getting tenure and they thought they were revolutionaries . . . before Alan Sokal set that myth straight), and of course there was the culture of entitlement, the culture of abuse, the culture of bullying, the culture of hand-me-down disfunction.....

 
At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sounds like a typical English department to me.

I exaggerate . . . but there do always seem to be a lot of folks on the Left, for instance, in English departments, people who may call themselves Marxists without knowing much economics and sometimes even without having read much Marx!

I've often encountered folks at conferences who give talks on novels and think that they're talking about society.

But I don't want to rant . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:51 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Would you agree that Carey rather confuses issues here? Morland would not have been a source for Milton--his views were not written until 3 years after the sonnet. "Mother with Infant" stands as metaphor rather than historical fact (as you say: Milton is not concerned with statistics). Probably, Milton reads "Infant" in the strict literal sense of "without language". (Vaughan uses the word in this way. "Mother and Infant" represent speechlessness...Milton is the Father, speaking in their defence. I do like your anti-Catholic reading, however, and the veiled irony.

 
At 7:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I hadn't noticed the discrepancy in dates. Thanks for pointing that out. On the other hand, Milton may have been aware of the report even before Morland published.

I'd have to think about your interpretation. Does it fit with other details of the poem? . . . not that my 'anti-Catholic' reading obviously does.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:24 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

As Milton was writing to Piedmont for Cromwell, he must have been familiar with events, in detail. I can't see why Morland (1658) would have shaped his ideas, as Carey suggests, in a 1655 poem.

 
At 7:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I may have been misled by the expression "Cromwell's agent, Sir Samuel Morland." I took that to mean that he was involved in the investigation of the massacre from the beginning, and that he later reported on it.

I am relatively ignorant of the details, so I don't know what specific role Milton himself played, but I'm guessing that he and Morland would have been privy to the same information quite early.

Do you know who was supplying the details from firsthand reports, and to whom? Morland and Milton both seem to refer to the same atrocity of throwing mother and child from a cliff, yet their 'reports' differ slightly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:59 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Hello there. I have had to do a bit of digging, hence the slowness of reply. Seemingly, letters flooded into England following the massacre. Morland was not an investigator. Milton was requested by Cromwell to write letters, notably one to Mazarin, and prepare a speech for Morland as The Protector's "very special envoy" to the Duke of Savoy. Morland was a young man at the time and not to be trusted with striking the correct rhetorical tone of address. Milton's speech shows a detailed knowledge of the brutalities, so Morland was not the source. Morland was briefed by Milton and Cromwell. Cromwell published the sources/letters in June 1655, to justify his Protestant cause in Europe. The letters seem to be the source of the image in the poem as they mention women and children tied together and then thrown down cliff faces...and much worse!

 
At 7:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics, and my apologies for putting you to so much effort. You should perhaps publish a paper on this topic.

From what you provide, Morland would seem to have gotten information from Milton rather than the reverse.

Morland went on to his own impressive career, of course, including a lot scientific work, but he seems to have been of minor significance in this issue.

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:42 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

No problem.
You always spark my curiosity.

 
At 6:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And you, mine.

Jeffery Hodges

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