An introduction to Milton’s Sonnet Number 9, which is one of the few poems he wrote that would probably have been better left unwritten.
Milton’s Sonnet IX, commonly known as ‘To a Virtuous Young Lady,’ is a problematic poem when read in the context of modern society. Although it is possible to praise the poet’s ability with word choice, scansion and general technical skill and, moreover, to think about secondary meanings and allusions, it is all but impossible to overlook the main part of the poem’s message. This is that a young woman is being addressed and is being praised for those typical ladylike virtues of obedience, purity and deference that mark out the wholly paternalistic sensibility and society.
Milton himself was not notably chauvinistic in his attitudes for the time in which he lived and, indeed, was quite progressive in his championing of free speech and the possibility of divorce (although it is possible to accuse him of being somewhat self-serving in this case). Nevertheless, this poem seems to offer little to impress in terms of content. Consider, for example, the opening lines: “LADY, that in the prime of earliest youth/ Wisely hast shunn’d the broad way and the green.” This and its subsequent lines may not seem so bad, especially since it is the kind of thing that parents (father especially, presumably) tell their daughters all the time: stay out of trouble, think of the long-term, avoid bad influences and so forth. Yet it is necessary to consider the context in which young women were likely to find themselves at the time of writing the poem: enslaved by inequitable marriage laws and by the cruelty of biology in the age of premodern medicine, women were constantly at risk of debilitating injury or sickness and were subject to scorn or abuse for any attempt to follow or even express their own opinions or ideas.
In the circumstances, it was extremely difficult for young women to do anything but obey if they wanted to keep out of serious trouble – and being disowned by the family or otherwise made homeless almost certainly meant a life sentence of begging or sex work. Praising women for behaving ‘virtuously’ for following the will of God, therefore, acts to buttress the laws and regulations that already prohibit most forms of free will for women while also justifying those largely male power-wielders who determine the nature of the inequitable and unacceptable laws of society.
Milton was certainly one of the greatest poets working in the English language and generally an important and progressive voice in society. However, like everyone else, he was not perfect and this poem illustrates that.