Milton, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont

18 Mar

Milton is a very difficult poet for modern readers.  Part of it is that he has a voice close to an Old Testament prophet, what he has to say is rarely pleasant, and he’s got an anger that rolls on like the wrath of God.  Another part is that he rarely wrote about small personal matters, focusing on the spiritual and political–we’re so used to art being either lyrical or corporate that these heavy opinions are less savory than they once were.  However, Milton is one of the biggest influences in English writing just short of Shakespeare in that regard.   He brought into the English speaking world the modern epic almost singlehandedly.

But to appreciate him, lets look at a smaller work.  Three sentences in fourteen lines, that rages like some forgotten section of the Bible.  All this regarding an Italian massacre of Protestants in 1655–by all accounts one of the bloodiest tragedies of the reformation.  Stories passed around about babies being bashed against stones and the aged burned alive in their homes and even more boiled the blood of Protestants at the time and really gave strength to the Protestant cause.

“Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,/even them who kept thy truth so pure of old/When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones.”   Listen to that hard O at the end of every line–every line ends with it, and it climbs down the poem like a howl.    Yes, what he’s saying is important (asking God to avenge the death of innocents) but the sound makes the sense here, and how hard these words are to even say–you almost have to spit them out.

“Forget not: in thy book record their groans/Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold/Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled/Mother with infant down the rocks.”   So Milton isn’t asking only for earthly revenge, but he wants God to permanently write these horrors in the eternal book so they will be remembered for all time.

“Their moans/The vales redoubled to the hills, and they/To Heaven.”  This could be taken literally, but also their moans echoing out of the valleys can be interpreted as their story coming out to the world.  The they to heaven bit could mean that their moans also climbed that high, but it more likely means that the martyred souls have gone to heaven.

“Their martyred blood and ashes sow/O’er all the Italian fields where still doth sway/The triple tyrant.”  Here Milton starts a good old fashioned curse.   The blood and ashes sow (we’ll find out what later) but over Italy where the pope still runs things.  He’s the triple tyrant because he’s an authority on heaven, earth, and hell.  However, there’s a definite antichrist hint here, because of the number three.  Also the other major three–body, mind, and soul–it could be said that the Pope was repressing all three by forcing people to rejoin the Catholic church or be tortured and killed and suppressing free speech.

“-that from these may grow/a hundredfold, who having learnt thy way/Early may fly the Babylonian woe.”  So here’s the end of the poem, curiously having all this rage he’s not really wanting bloody revenge, but a spiritual one, that hundreds will leave the church (which actually happened) thus removing all its power.

So why read this, since the massacre of 1655 is long over particularly if you aren’t interested in church history?  First because this is the rare example of a poem reacting to an emotional event without coming off as over the top and silly.  Where Milton  has his sights is on his own feelings beneath his diatribe, he’s not really trying to convince us to feel the same way as him (which is the problem with reaction poems tend to have).

Second, underneath his rage, you can really track an attention to emotional reaction–and this is the genius–had Milton cursed the church at the beginning I’d imagine it would be vicious and destructive, but by the end he had spent the anger far enough to ask for a sensible thing that doesn’t cause more direct harm to individuals.  It’s the general direction of anger a hot spark that gradually cools down.   We all could learn from that.

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