Citizen Milton
Samuel Butler, 'The Prospect' (1881)

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley

12. 'The Hidden Soul of Harmony': The Pastoral Milton

While Milton is the poet of revolutionary action, he is also a writer who celebrated creation and the peaceful states of meditation of nature, suited to the pastoral literary and visual modes. The themes of citizenship and social responsibility depend on a harmonious relationship with rural culture and the natural world, as can be seen from those artists who have taken up Milton's edenic themes.

Samuel Palmer, The Prospect (1881), Watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic on London board.

Palmer, a disciple of Blake, revered Milton as an "arch-alchemist," in that anything he touched became "poetic gold." His painting, The Prospect, draws upon lines from Milton's delightful early poem, "L'Allegro," and converts Milton's lines to a physical landscape of reverie:

Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the landscape round it measures;
Russet Lawns and fallows gray
Where the nibbling flock do stray;
Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
meadows trim with daisies pied
Shallow brooks and rivers wide.
Towers and battlements it sees
Bosom'd high on tufted trees,
Where perhaps some beauty lies,
The cynosure of neigh'bring eyes.

--Milton, L'Allegro, lines 69-80.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund (including a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the mLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Headley Trust, the Friends of the Ashmolean, and numerous private donations, 2005. A full-sized version of the picture can be viwed on the Ashmolean website.

The Minor Poems of John Milton with Twelve Illustrations by Samuel Palmer (1889)

As one who had "carried the Minor Poems in my pocket for twenty years," and once went into the country expressly for retirement while attempting a set of designs for "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," Palmer was commissioned by Valpy to depict Miltonic subjects for etchings, of which two were made in his lifetime. The artist's son A. H. Palmer made working proofs from his father's set, and later printed them in this volum. Of "The Bellman," Palmer comments, "here we enter seclusion without desolateness; where light enough remains to show the village sheltered in its wooded nest." Palmer captures the meditative, tranquil qualities of Milton's pastoral mode.
From a private collection.

The Poetical Works of John Milton with Photographic Illustrations by Deswell Vaughan (1882)

Fusing the documentary with the visionary, Deswell Vaughan was a socialist and pioneer of early photography. His pastoral images to accompany Milton's shorter poetry highlights the dignity of rural labour and life and reflect Vaughan's politically engaged work.
Vet.A7 e. 275

Latin and Italian Poems, tr. William Cowper, ill. John Flaxman (J. Johnson, date).

To illustrate William Cowper's translations, John Flaxman (1755-1826) fashioned the poet Milton as on a pedestal surrouded by classical images, the poet's laurels above. Flaxman, who had illustrated Homer, Aeschylus and Dante, had planned to illustrate Paradise Lost, but his images for that work remain unpublished.
Dunstan B1361

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Top image: Samuel Butler, 'The Prospect' (1881)