The Collected Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton
Modern Library; 1942
TLDR: Teenaged Milton wrote a poem about his dead niece, but in true teenager/Milton fashion it’s heavy on mythology, light on actual grief, and somehow even scoldy. What a cock. It’ll mess your kid up and bore her at the same time. Five screams.
Note: I’m trying out something new this time—a rating system. As you see above, Henry gave this book five out of five screamfaces. What does that mean? It’s compiled using a complex algorithm based on the projected cost of future therapy attributable to this book, immediate discomfort with the sound of the prose, and whether my kid had gas while I read it to him. Precision science, this. Basically, more screams means this book is more likely to do your own child irreparable harm in the near and long term.
Henry hates the poetry of John Milton. No, not the sweet space battles with kick-ass angel cannons. Not the righteous railing against God. Not the demon names. That stuff rules and even Henry, at two months, is attuned enough to his inner Metal to recognize it. He doesn’t have much in the way of hand control yet but I swear I’ve seen him try to throw up those horns.
No, we never even made it to Paradise Lost.
That’s because the first poem in this collection—I don’t know if this is true of the 2007 re-edit from Modern Library—is about the death of Milton’s two-year-old niece. GRAB THAT TORN BLACK ONESIE SHROUD AND BUCKLE ON UP HANK, IT’S TIME FOR SOME LITERARY BABY MOURNIN’
Milton most likely wrote the poem “On the death of a fair infant dying of a cough” when he was nineteen though it was only published two years before his death, and at that time (and likewise in my edition) he marked it as being written when he was seventeen. Reading the poem, you want, for the sake of Milton’s legacy, for it to have been composed as early as possible. It’s terrible, is my point. It’s a poem by a teenager. It’s a poem by a kid trying to mourn, but getting caught up in his own lyric. He’s a sad young literary man failing at even the ‘sad’ part of the thing. James Hanford wrote “Milton is seeking elevation rather than forcefulness of expression, and he as yet knows no way to attain it save by abounding in the aureate rhetoric of the age.”
The opening line is wonderful, I’ll admit:
"O fairest flower no sooner blown but blasted"
Then Milton talks about Apollo, then he compares this dead baby to an angel sent with a purpose, which is a bit Hallmark-ey, but a comfort perhaps. And then, in the last stanza, he goes Full Gross:
Then thou the mother of so sweet a child
Her false imagin’d loss cease to lament,
And wisely learn to curb her sorrows wild;
Think what a present thou to God hast sent,
And render him with patience what he lent;
This if thou do he will an offspring give,
That till the world’s last end shall make thy name to live.
I think at that point Hank and I were both screaming in rage.
Imagine your baby dies (NOT YOU HENRY DON’T WORRY YOU’LL LIVE FOREVER WHAT IS DEATH HA HA I DON’T KNOW GO BACK TO SLEEP) and what does your old-enough-to-know-better brother do? He sends you a poem telling you to shut up and maybe god will give you a better kid. Fuck you John. Fuck you.
Anyhow, Henry hated this, but Milton is Milton, so if you want to have a go you can grab the newer edition here.