An introduction to one of John Milton’s earliest English poems, the sonnet O Nightingale.
John Milton’s first known poem in English is thought to be the sonnet starting ‘O Nightingale,’ which is generally referred to as Sonnet I. Milton seems to have written this poem at about the same time as six sonnets written in Italian (showing his mastery of that language) in or around 1630. By that time, Milton had already graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Christ Church College, Cambridge and would receive his Master of Arts in 1632. Although a formidable person by virtue of his erudition and obvious talent, Milton attracted the rather dismissive nickname of ‘The Lady’ on the basis, apparently, of his girlish good looks and nature (of course, women were excluded from all parts of the university for centuries after this date). It is sometimes hard to reconcile the idea of ‘The Lady’ with Milton’s occasionally puritanical ideology and severe outlook.
Be that as it may, Milton’s sonnet is imbued with romanticism, optimism and idealism, as is conventional and rather pleasing from a young man. It is written in conventional iambic pentameter (i.e. five alternating soft and strong beats in each line) with the rhyming scheme abba abba cdcdcd. It is addressed to the nightingale, a poetic symbol that became more famous subsequently through the work of Keats but already well-enough established in the literature of the classics. The bird is praised for ‘the fresh hope the Lovers heart does fill’ and for bringing the desires of young lovers to the attention of Jove, who can then do what is necessary to bring them together. Alas for the young poet, the middle part of the sonnet indicates that he himself has been unlucky in love for the nightingale has always sung too late for his happiness to be realised and, indeed, he has been struck by some unfortunate (but unspecified) interaction with the ‘Bird of Hate.’ The poet does not know why this has happened or ‘why,/ Whether the Muse or Love call thee his mate,/ Both of them I serve. And of their train am I.” So, Milton declares his intention to be a servant both of love and of poetry (the Muse) and this is perfectly natural for an idealistic young man, one whose lengthy political education had yet properly to begin.
This sonnet is not great poetry, although it is competently enough written and constructed. If it had not been written by as major a figure as Milton, in truth, it probably would not receive much attention at all. As it is, it is evidence of the youthful exuberance of the great poet and philosopher.