An introduction to an early poem by Milton, which was written as part of his schoolwork.
It is of course somewhat unfair to compare across the centuries but it is hard to imagine that many young people at the beginning of the twenty-first century, asked as part of their secondary or high school education to complete an extended poem in rhyming couplets, using iambic pentameter, would do as good a job as the young John Milton. Not only did he achieve this as one of his academic prolusions but he completed half of the work in the required Latin. This does not mean that the poem reaches the heights of Milton’s work, far from it, but it is a disciplined and competent effort that indicates the willingness of the young man to stone the tools and techniques of his craft and to learn how to make words yield to thoughts.
This, indeed, is the basis of the meaning and intent of the poem. Its English section begins: “Hail native Language, that by sinews weak/ Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,/ And mad’st imperfect words with childish trips,/ Half unpronounced, slide through my infant lips.” Here, then, Milton is praising the English language itself for having such power that it has enabled him to bring into the world various cogent sentences despite his own inadequacies in expression. Inevitably, when a writer praises ‘native’ anything there is a suspicion that this is going to involve traducing the institutions used in other countries – previously, Milton has indicated his admiration of Ovid and of classical myth through his deployment of those images and ideas in some others of his early poems. However, in this case, he writes (no doubt aware of the examiner’s eye upon his work) of the virtues of his native land. Even so, the reader will consider the parallel with the Logos – the Word of God – in a society in which Christianity pervaded so much of life and society.
The poem states its purpose and then, as often happens with the works of yet to mature poets, rather repeats itself instead of developing the theme. In a later section, for example, Milton gives us: “I have some naked thoughts that rove about/ And loudly knock to have their passage out;/ And weary of their place do only stay/ Till thou hast decked them in their best array.” This, like other sections, is frankly not very good. Milton has already made this thought apparent earlier in the poem and the word choice is uninspired and the construction of the lines pedestrian at best. It is not, therefore, surprising that this piece is regarded as a minor piece of juvenile writing.