I’ve always felt that poetry should be at home – no, embroiled – in the world. It’s not that a poem is a journalistic act, or a piece of propaganda, or anything other than a poem. But poems, like their author, have to live in interesting times and places. Here, in the midst of civil war, Milton imagines nailing this sonnet to the door of his house when, as the poem’s sometime title has it, ‘the assault was intended to the city.’
And it’s our old friend the art against mortality trope: spare this house and those within it, and the poet – indeed, this very poem – will make you famous. Your name will ring with that of Alexander the Great (the ‘Emathian Conqueror’) as a warrior capable of generosity in the service of culture.
It’s self-serving, overstated, grandiose, and actually a bit funny (I suspect Milton’s tongue was in his cheek – for a puritan I think he often displays a subtle sense of humour.)
It’s not easy to explain why, but that is a terrific opening line, a straightforward address to an imagined attacker. And watch how the poem takes its here-and-now setting and elevates it into the realms of classical history and mythology.
A great poem-in-the-world.
Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless dores may sease,
If ever deed of honour did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spred thy Name o're Lands and Seas,
What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses' Bowre,
The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when Temple and Towre
Went to the ground: and the repeated air
Of sad Electra's Poet had the power
To save th' Athenian Walls from ruine bare.