Kevin Saving on

'Sonnet XVI: To the Lord General Cromwell' 

by John Milton (1608 – 1674)



Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud

Not only of war, but destractions rude,

Guided by faith and matchless fortitude

To peace and truth thy glorious way hast ploughed,

And on the neck of crowned fortune proud

Has reared God's trophies and his work persued,

While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,

And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,

And Worcester's laureate wreath; yet much remains

To conquer still; peace hath her victories

No less renowned than war, new foes arise

Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:

Help us to save free conscience from the paw

Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.


We are fortunate enough to be in possession of Milton's working copy of his earlier poems (know as the 'Trinity Manuscript' by virtue of its residence at Trinity college, Cambridge). Via this source we know that the sonnet - the first in a series addressed to various prominent figures of his time - was composed in May 1652, in response to the heated deliberations of a committee for The Propagation of the Gospel. Some on the Committee advocated an established Church with ministers appointed (and paid for) by the state. Others favoured a greater freedom of conscience - and this latter view was shared, at least in the matter of organised worship, by Cromwell and Milton himself.

   Milton at this time was very much a political insider. Forty-three years of age, he had only recently moved into a house in Petty France, Westminster, close to the seat of The Commonwealth's Government and his job, Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State (an amalgam of senior civil servant, secretary/interpreter and propangandist) which paid him a relatively modest £288 per annum. The Government he worked so assiduously for was a republican one since the execution of the former king, Charles I, in January, 1649 (in favour of which Milton had, quite vehemently, written).

   The verse quoted above represents a fairly blatent piece of political opportunism. John Bradshaw, formerly Milton's lawyer and something of a patron, had stepped down from his position as chair of the Council in November 1651. Everyone by now knew that the real power in the land was wielded by Oliver Cromwell, all-conquering Lord-General and head of an ideologically energised New Model Army. The sonnet, condemning the Presbyterian drive for conformity, has Ciceronian undertones. Whilst bloodthirstily lauding Cromwellian victories (the Durwen was a tributary of the river Ribble, near Preston, where Cromwell decimated the Scots invaders in 1648) Milton presumes to remind Cromwell that there is much still to do. The allusion to a crown might be considered unfortunate! Traditionally, sonnets reach their volte (or turning point) around their eighth line, but here the poet over-runs into the ninth, driven by his need to sweeten the pill of what is about to come. There is little textual evidence here of the familiarity, indeed open admiration, of another sonnet - written only a little over a month after this one - to the Treasurer of the Navy, Henry Vane. Milton and Cromwell, it may be conjectured, were useful to each other, but not friends. Strangely, there is no mention of the poet's name in any of Cromwell's correspondence or speeches. Milton later wrote admiringly (in his Second Defence of the English People, 1654) of the Protectorate's 'well-regulated liberty' and, elsewhere, of The Protector's lack of personal arrogance coupled with 'a trustful faith in God, and a native vastness of intellect'.

   The later poems in the Trinity Manuscript are written in various, unknown hands. Though demonstrably copied under his close supervision, their author had cause to employ a number of amanuenses. Though this was a fairly common practice of the time, Milton had more need of it than most: at this stage he was almost totally blind. Suffering from what by modern diagnostic criteria was almost certainly glaucoma, he had - at a time when blindness was often, superstitiously, believed to be a sign of God's displeasure - attempted to disguise the infirmity for a number of years. Personally vain, he believed both that the casual observer was unable to detect him in this deceit, and that he, still, appeared much younger than his age. In a letter to a friend (dated 1654) he chose to categorise the symptoms he'd experienced progressively over the previous ten years. These included a body 'shaken with flatulence', awful headaches in which colours 'proportionately darker would burst forth with violence and a sort of crash from within'; by 1654 everything was 'pure black, marked as if with extinguished or ashy light'.

   Milton's domestic circumstances in the May of 1652 were equally punishing. On the fifth of that month he lost, three days after giving birth to their fourth child, his first wife, Mary, with whom he'd had - we may comfortably surmise - a fraught relationship characterised by a three-year separation and infused by familial and political differences. Just six weeks after his mother, their only son (another John) died at the age of fifteen months, in circumstances which caused Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips, to fulminate against 'the ill usage or bad constitution of an ill-chosen nurse'.

   Milton was to undergo a number of vicissitudes in the remainder of his life before dying quietly in his bed (of gout, in his sixty-sixth year). By then he'd been fortunate enough to survive The Restoration, jail, the Great Plague, the fire of London; to marry twice more, and to produce his long-planned masterpiece, Paradise Lost, in his late fifties. Though his politics have frequently been questioned, his literary survival never, seriously, has. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England and his senior by nine years, would predecease him on September 3rd 1658 - the anniversary of the twin victories at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) which the poet had eulogised some six years earlier.



Further reading:

Beer, A. (2008) Milton, Bloomsbury.

Danielson, J. (ed) (1999) The Cambridge Companion To Milton, Cambridge university Press.

Fraser, A. (1973) Cromwell: Our Chief Of Men, Methuen.

Hill, C. (1988) Who's Who in Stuart Britain (1603-1714), Shepheard-Walwyn.

Milton, J. (1997) The Complete Shorter Poems (ed. Carey, J.), Longman




Kevin Saving © 2008