Samuel Peralta here…
The University of Western Ontario in Canada stands in March amid the grounds of a mild winter, in London, Ontario. Its graystone tower and historical buildings evoke the era from its founding in 1878.
Western’s motto, emblazoned on the University coat of arms, and intertwined with symbols of Canada, is “Veritas et Utilitas” – truth and service.
It is in this spirit that Western excels in the areas of life sciences, social sciences, business and law.
Trailblazers include former faculty member Frederick Banting, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of insulin; space shuttle astronauts Bjarni Tryggvason and Roberta Bondar; and Professor James J. Talman – who from the 1930s to 1969 was the University’s Chief Librarian.
A humble, witty gentleman with a fondness for tweed, Talman spent decades building up the renowned library collection at Western, eventually amassing 700,000 volumes by the end of his tenure.
In the 1940s, he spent time in Britain, buying up used books from shops and collectors – in the tens of thousands – before turning the job over to agents.
In March 1969 – almost exactly 44 years ago to the day, as I write this – Talman found himself negotiating particularly hard for a couple of boxes of rare books from a collector and dealer in California.
Those books – 450 in all – would, at the end of his talks, cost the University nearly $200,000.
Today they are priceless.
Those volumes now form the cornerstone of what is arguably Western’s most prized collection, books – many of them first editions – by and about the 17th century poet John Milton.
John Milton (1608–1674) is best known for having written one of most renowned epic poems in the English language, “Paradise Lost”.
His eloquence and power, in both prose and poetry, were strong influences on his contemporaries, and many today continue to draw inspiration from his works.
Outspoken in politics and an activist for religious reform, Milton was stricken with an eye condition that some render as glaucoma or bilateral retinal detachment.
In any case, by 1654 he was totally blind, and had to dictate his writings to assistants, including the poet Andrew Marvell.
Despite this setback, his poetic vision and the power in his voice continued unabated.
Many of his best-known works were written during this remarkable period, including “Paradise Lost”, and numerous sonnets, including “On His Blindness”.
Today, the University of Western Ontario carries over 800 volumes of works by Milton, recognized as one of the finest collections in the world.
Not normally available to the general public and students, over a few months in 2008-2009, a selection was put on display for the first time at Western’s Archives and Research Collections Centre, as part of Milton’s 400th birthday celebration.
That celebration was, for some at the library, a high mark in the building of a collection that includes first edition volumes from the 17th century right through to the present day.
Among these is a 1668 edition of Milton’s magnum opus, “Paradise Lost”. That volume is reported to have been Milton’s personal copy.
Apart from his magnum opus in blank verse, Milton is revered for another revolution in poetics, in the sonnet.
First, he wrenched the sonnet out of its traditional role as a love poem, and brought it to bear on social and political issues.
Second, he crafted what is now known as the Miltonian, or Miltonic, sonnet – as a variant to the highly popular Petrarchan sonnet.
Like other sonnets, the Miltonian sonnet is made of 14 lines of ten syllables per line (iambic pentameter). The first part is a set of 8 lines (an octave) and then a set of 6 lines (a sestet).
Milton’s octaves invariably follow the Petrarchan rhyme scheme – ABBA-ABBA.
His sestets use a number of rhyme schemes, but his favorite was CD-CD-CD, followed closely by CDE-CDE (adhering more to the Petrarchan form).
In rough order of usage, Milton also used the rhyme schemes CD-CD-EE, CDD-CDC, CDE-DEC and CDC-EED for the sestets.
Traditionally, the octave forms the proposition of the poem, and the sestet the resolution, with the ninth line initiating the turn (volta).
However, I find that I don’t have to consciously adhere to the proposition-volta-resolution format.
This is because my work is heavily based on storytelling – and naturally falls into that traditional cadence, even if the subject is modern, nothing Milton would ever recognize, such as a snowblower.
In my last Form for All article, I provided a glimpse into a collaborative artistic journey I’d started, with Canadian artist Heather Horton.
It began with her painting “Refracted Portrait” and, inspired by that painting, my trireme sonnet “Ice at the Window.”
Just nine days ago, in last Tuesday’s Open Link Night, I presented a new sonnet in that series, inspired by Heather’s work “After the Storm”.
This was “Winter Fray”, a modern piece that looks like free verse, but that is, in actuality, a Miltonian sonnet.
Six inches, after the first storm. A whir
of blades across the snow-packed pavement’s trench,
and the blower splattered across the fence
a Pollock canvas, an hoarfrost-strewn blur
from the Tecumseh engine’s angry burr.
Against winter, this is your armament –
a 2-stage, 11-hp, 30-inch,
pull-start, self-propelled silverback monster.
She fought back with seven inches, her scrawl
strafed across the night’s blackboard sky like chalk.
A quick change of spark plugs after a stall,
and you push her across the border, back.
In the morning’s ceasefire, the white crystal
of last night’s fray reveals a silver Rorschach.
Tonight, I invite you to contribute your own Miltonian sonnet, in the more traditional formats as laid out here – ABBA-ABBA-CDCDCD, or ABBA-ABBA-CDECDE.
It would be tempting to make your poem about love, as sonnets swing that way – but if you can craft it around a different core – as I did, in “Winter Fray” – that would be in the spirit of Milton’s poetics.
Don’t forget to take in the poems of your comrades-in-writing, if you will, and leave them your thoughts about their work. Thank you.
Samuel Peralta – on Twitter as @Semaphore – is the author of five titles in The Semaphore Collection – three of which have hit the top of the Amazon Kindle best sellers list in poetry. His literary honours include awards from the BBC, UK Poetry Society, a Palanca Award, and shortlists for the League of Canadian Poets and ARC Poem of the Year.
Copyright (c) Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.
“After the Storm” copyright (c) Heather Horton, used with permission.
Other images public domain / via WikiMedia Commons or as attributed.