Who reads Milton today? Even the poets I know don’t read him. I love Blake, and so find myself sympathetic to Milton. I can appreciate him, and grew to appreciate him more during a required graduate seminar. Still, to love him? To even read him? Our culture begs that we dismiss him, other than a few obligatory quotes from “Paradise Lost”. But, hey, he wrote on so many levels while dictating it blind to his daughters; you’ve got to give him props for that trick alone.
So, I suggest entering with his other works. If you offer up Satan first, everything else is a let down. That is in part because that “rule in hell” line is taken out of context; the irony is that he really is not ruling, but that God lets him think he is. Get it? By the end of “Paradise Lost” the devil is pathetic, but few people today get to the end, much less discuss it with others.
A bit of history: The Protestants under Oliver Cromwel beheaded Charles I and created a puritain hell on earth. They invaded Northern Ireland and gave the land to the Scots (creating our modern problem) and colonized and punished Ireland. Theaters in England were shut (too much fun) and life was a bit grim. With all of the killing Milton, an organ of the state and a bit of a religious zealot himself, thought it went a bit too far at times. Thus, this sonnet.
It is graphic, and over-the-top in woe. Have students imagine the mother and baby being rolled down the cliff to their death. Look up the history of Cromwell and the activities of the New Model Army. Find Piedmont on a map, and paint the scene. Then discuss if art–if a poem–can ever catch truth? Would a movie or photo done it more justice? Are these words too much? How do we, today, tell the truth about injustice?
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundred fold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.