The Italian Verse of Milton
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The Italian verse of Milton consists of but six poems: five sonnets and the single stanza of a canzone. Though later in life the poet will celebrate conjugal love in Book IV of Paradise Lost (1667) and in Sonnet XXIII Methought I saw my late espousèd saint (1673), in 1645 Milton proffers his lyric of erotic desire in the Italian language alone. His choice is both unusual and entirely fitting. How did Milton, born in Cheapside, acquire Italian at such an elevated level of proficiency? When did he write these poems and where? Is the woman about whom he speaks an historical person or is she merely the poetic trope demanded by the genre? Though relatively few critics have addressed the style of Milton’s Italian verse, an astonishing range of views has nonetheless emerged from their assessments. The Italian style of Milton illustrates fundamental attributes of the poet’s approach to composition in both his prose and his verse. The Secretary for Foreign Tongues must of necessity function as poet and polemicist, routinely crossing linguistic frontiers whensoever the genre requires it. In this respect, the Italian verse of Milton — in which the poet responds in a strania favella [foreign speech] to the demands of love — is an early occurrence of the effort of the Commonwealth rhetor who likewise answers the challenges of European censure by exploiting the plurilingual resources of Renaissance humanism. Most of all, the Italian verse gives us a glimpse of the systematic reformation of Petrarchist poetics that Milton undertakes in his later verse in English. Perhaps it is because Petrarchan values came to England directly from Italian sources that Milton decides to reform petrarchismo first in Italian. Milton’s Italian verse attempts in miniature a moral reformation of the whole genre of love poetry itself.