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Essay on Poetic Theory

from Of Education (1644)


John Milton’s instructive Of Education first appeared as an eight-page pamphlet in 1644, and was reprinted in 1673 with a collection of his early poems.

Milton’s suggested approach to education for students between the ages of 12 and 21 was greatly influenced by his own experiences. Before attending Cambridge University, Milton was educated at St. Paul’s School, a boy’s school run according to the humanist theory of education, and after Cambridge, Milton embarked upon a five-year independent reading project. From 1640-1646 he ran a small school for boys, which he led according to the principles outlined in this tract.

Many of Milton’s ideas are aligned with the humanistic theory of education, which developed from the Revival of Learning that spread across Western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. According to Oliver Ainsworth, editor of the 1928 Yale edition, the humanistic theory is composed of three beliefs: first, that education disciplines one in preparation for life as an active citizen; second, that in-depth readings of ancient writers is a critical facet of this discipline; and third, an animosity towards medieval educational practices, which emphasized scholasticism over public life.

Milton’s ideas were also influenced by the educator John Cornelius, who believed that empirical observation helped develop moral character. This first-hand approach to learning connects with Milton’s belief that education should inspire as it challenges, “infusing into [students’] young breasts such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men.” Some scholars have noted the parallels between Milton’s theory of education and the education Adam received from the angels Raphael and Michael in Paradise Lost. Originally published as a pamphlet-letter entitled Of Education: To Master Samuel Hartlib (1645), this text came to be known as “Tractate on Education,” by which title it is known in The Harvard Classics, vol 3 (New York: Collier, 1909–14).

For the studies, first they should begin with the chief and necessary rules of some good grammar, either that now used, or any better: and while this is doing, their speech is to be fashioned to a distinct and clear pronunciation, as near as may be to the Italian, especially in the vowels. For we Englishmen being far northerly, do not open our mouths in the cold air, wide enough to grace a southern tongue; but are observed by all other nations to speak exceeding close and inward: So that to smatter Latin with an English mouth, is as ill a hearing as Law-French. Next to make them expert in the usefulest points of grammar, and withal to season them, and win them early to the love of virtue and true labor, ere any flattering seducement, or vain principle seize them wandering, some easy and delightful book of education would be read to them; whereof the Greeks have store, as Cebes, Plutarch, and other Socratic discourses. But in Latin we have none of classic authority extant, except the two or three first books of Quintilian, and some select pieces elsewhere. But here the main skill and groundwork will be, to temper them such lectures and explanations upon every opportunity as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, inflamed with the study of learning, and the admiration of virtue; stirred up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages. That they may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberal exercises: which he who hath the art, and proper eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual persuasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young breasts such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men. . . .

And now lastly will be the time to read with them those organic [practical, instrumental—ed.] arts which enable men to discourse and write perspicuously, elegantly, and according to the fitted style of lofty, mean or lowly Logic therefore so much as is useful, is to be referred to this due place with all her well couched heads and topics, until to be time to open her contracted palm into a graceful and ornate rhetoric taught out of the rule of Plato, Aristotle, Phalereus, Cicero, Hermogenes, Longinus. To which poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less subtle and fine, but more simple, sensuous and passionate. I mean not here the prosody of a verse, which they could not have hit on before among the rudiments of grammar; but that sublime art which in Aristotle’s Poetics, in Horace, and the Italian commentaries of Castelvetro, Tasso, Mazzoni, and others, teaches what the laws are of a true epic poem, what of a dramatic, what of a lyric, what decorum is, which is the grand masterpiece to observe. This would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our common rimers and playwriters be, and show them, what religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry both in divine and human things. From hence and not till now will be the right season of forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with an universal insight into things. Or whether they be to speak in Parliament or council, honor and attention would be waiting on their lips. There would then also appear in pulpits other visages, other gestures, and stuff otherwise wrought than what we now sit under, ofttimes to as great a trial of our patience as any other that they preach to us. These are the studies wherein our noble and our gentle youth ought to bestow their time in a disciplinary way from twelve to one and twenty; unless they rely more upon their ancestors dead, than upon themselves living.

  • Originally Published: October 13th, 2009
  • John Milton’s career as a writer of prose and poetry spans three distinct eras: Stuart England; the Civil War (1642-1648) and Interregnum, including the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Protectorate (1654-1660); and the Restoration. When Elizabeth I, the so-called Virgin Queen and the last of the Tudors, died, James VI, King of...

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