Milton Now pp 129-148 | Cite as

Uncouth Milton

  • Christopher Warley
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Despite being an obnoxious self-promoter always happy to point out what an important poet he was and would be, Milton throughout his poetry embraced the uncouth—the anonymous, the unknown, the humble, the tasteless—as a vital ideal. The uncouth was important for Milton’s art first because it resonated with his religious convictions. “They also serve who only stand and wait” (Sonnet 16, line 14):1 Christians serve God to serve, not to make a name for themselves; that is why “they” are only “they.” But the Miltonic uncouth moves well beyond the confines of seventeenth-century religion. Devotion to the uncouth is a commitment to using art in the service of equality in the world. Christianity promises a transcendent equality after death; Miltonic art demands equality in life. This demand is one of the things that still feels so modern about Milton’s poems: their championing of the quotidian and the non-noble against the pretenses of aristocracy, of those without a name against those who name themselves too much. And so while the word appears in Milton’s poetry only nine times,2 uncouth names a question and possibility at the very center of Miltonic art. The most notorious appearance is the end of Lycidas, when out of nowhere a third-person voice announces that the poem has, apparently all along, been sung by “the uncouth swain” (line 186). This uncouth frame is the realization of the structural core of Lycidus: its effort to represent the uncouth and to let the anonymous speak.


Human Condition Force Finger Oxford English Dictionary Paradise Lost Homely Person 
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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Christopher Warley

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