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David R. Slavitt on Young John Milton

David R. Slavitt

Open Letters: Most of your readers will think of Milton as the stern, blind, and slightly mad patriarch of Paradise Lost – they certainly won’t believe he was ever seventeen years old. Could you set the scene a bit for us, regarding “On the Fifth of November”?
David R. Slavitt: Well, obviously, before he got to be an old curmudgeon he was a youngster, albeit very bright.These are intimidatingly good poems from a teenager. In part, he was showing off, but he was also flexing those muscles that he’d use later. I don’t think there needs to be any biographical prompting for a poem about Guy Fawkes.
OL: A critic once remarked that most of Milton’s early poetry moves beyond the “erudite pastoralism” of the Italians and toward the “fresher pastures” of English lyricism. Do you see any of that movement here, or is this just a kid trying different things out?

DRS: That critic seems to forget that erudition wasn’t “elitist” back then. Relatively few people knew how to read, and even fewer could read Latin. I’m sure that Milton had read the eclogues of Petrarch and of Boccaccio (my translation of Boccaccio’s Eclogues comes out late this spring from Johns Hopkins) and the “conversation” between the Italians and the English had been going on for some time.

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and many others refer to (or steal from) the Italians all the time.

Christ's College, John Milton's old stomping ground

Christ's College, John Milton's old stomping ground

OL: “On the Fifth of November” is a translation from the Latin – a task with which you’re mildly familiar! What are the obvious tip-offs as to who the (very) young Milton’s models were? Any tricks to translating this Latin, as opposed to the Latin of people who actually spoke it and thought it?

DRS: My usual method, and what I did here, was to try to follow the organization and, insofar as is possible, the metrical arrangement of the original poem. “On the Fifth of November” is in my version of hexameters (roughly six-sbeat lines that I enjamb ofen enough so as not to break up into double trrimiters). I feel free to add stuff, because a lot gets lost and I want to maintain the linguistic density of the original. But what I introduce shouldn’t be jarring. Milton was intimately familiar with all the Latin poets, and he is trying to sound like them, so it is convenient that I know what the gestures are that he’s trying for.

Blake, inspired by Milton

Blake, inspired by Milton

OL: At the time Milton wrote this poem, all of the gigantic biographical and historical events that would shape him lay well in his future. Given that, what do you see as the rewards of looking again at poems like this one? Can they tell us anything about Milton? What interested you about them?

DRS: I think what most interested me is that they’re very good. It also seemed that for undergraduates, it would be novel for them to read what Milton was doing when he was their age. These are poems do not have to be read in the light of any particular political or religious engagement. Mostly, they are simply exercises in grace and wit, and for that reason accessible and appealing. I admire the adult Milton, but he’s maybe a little too adult for me. Monumental and majestic? Sure, but mostly I live on a less lofty plane.

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