Elegia sexta. English translation. Back to Latin text. Open Latin text in new window.

Introduction. Elegy 6 is another installment in the series of letters and epistolary poems exchanged between Milton and his dear friend, Charles Diodati. Extant are: a 1625 letter in Greek from Diodati to Milton (French 1.98-99), a 1626 letter in Greek from Diodati to Milton (French 1. 104-105), Elegia prima from Milton to Diodati, and Elegia Sexta. It was written in the winter of 1629, apparently in response to a letter (now lost) in which Diodati described his Christmas reveling and decorously begged forgiveness for the quality of his verse which had suffered amidst the festival atmosphere of his rural location. There is also a sense that Charles was encouraging John to cast off his austerity, at least for a little while, and to indulge at least briefly in the pleasures of youth. Milton adopts the playful tone of Diodati's letter and incorporates it into his response, then he moves into much more serious claims about the relative ethics of lyric and heroic verse.

Milton begins by lightly castigating Charles for his apparent intemperance, but reminds him that wine and song are not enemies of poetry. He observes that Bacchus and revelry can inspire poetry and that even Phoebus, god of poetry, indulged in Dionysian pleasures. According to Milton, many gods are patrons of the "light elegy" inspired by wine. Though we may be tempted to wonder whether Milton speaks sarcastically, his own use of elegy confirms the regard he has for the genre and invites us to take his words at face value.

As valuable as elegy may be as a means of expressing the joy of feasting and love, Milton considers heroic poetry a higher calling, and more suited to his own talents and vocation. Temperance is the appropriate way of life for the epic poet, an idea that Milton advanced in the preface to Book 2 of his Reason of Church Government as well as in The Apology to a Pamphlet. Milton aligns himself with the sober, "water-drinking" Homer of Greek epic. He deftly rejects his friend's exhortations to put aside serious study for awhile and enjoy himself, maintaining that even the early years of an epic poet must be absolutely devoted to unyielding temperance in life and in art.

Milton closes his address with a brief reference to his recently finished poem, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Placing his own work after his description of the life of an epic poet is clearly intended to link the two. It further implies that the ascetic lifestyle is necessary to write properly about the birth of the Son of God, implying that he is more suited to the task than his less temperate friend. He describes the parties Diodati attends as pagan saturnalia. By contrast, his Nativity Ode describes Christ's advent as a noble condescension, a violent supersession of pagan deities, and the beginning of an apocalyptic end to the world. Translation and introduction by Glenn Buchberger and Thomas H. Luxon.

December hilarity. Milton alludes here to pagan celebrations of the Saturnalia, a winter holiday of classical origins. For a full description of Saturnalia, please see the relevant Encyclopedia Britannica article. Note also the contrast between the December festivals described in this elegy and the description of the birth of Christ in Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Later in this elegy, Milton alludes to his Nativity Ode project.

departed from the sky. A rather obtuse allusion to the Son of God who left heaven to become incarnate on Earth. Obtuse, because the locution "the god" sounds as if it refers to a pagan deity.

fresh ivy berries. According to classical legend, Dionysius (Bacchus) wore a garland of berries, sometimes ivy, sometimes grapes. See Caravaggio's Bacchus (1597) and Rubens' Bacchus (1638-40). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Dionysiac revelers carried thyrsoi, wands of fennel tipped iwth ivy berries.

Aonian hills. Mount Helicon. This mountain in Boeotia was sacred to the Nine Muses.

crowd of nine. The Nine Muses.

Thyoneian. Bacchus's mother, Semele, was sometimes also called Thyone; thus Bacchus would sometimes be referred to as the Thyoneian, that is, of or from Thyone.

Corallian fields. A reference to Ovid's exile in Tomis. See Elegy 1 for a fuller reference to the poet's exile.

Lyaeus. Still another name for Bacchus.

Teian poet. The Teian (or Thalian, after Thalia the muse of comic song) was Anacreon, composer of drinking songs in short verses.

Teumesian Euan. Yet another name for Bacchus.

Pindaric verses. Pindar was a lyric poet of ancient Greece. He composed odes about the victories of charioteers in Pythian, Olympic, Isthmian, and Nemean games. It was said that Bacchus was his principle inspiration.

Glycera and of golden-haired Chloe. Both young women appear in Horace's Odes as objects of erotic attraction. Glycera in Book 1 Poem 19, Poem 30, and Poem 33; Chloe in Book 1 Poem 23, Book 3 Poem 7, Poem 9, and Poem 26.

Massic cups. Campanian cups. Campania is a region in Eastern Italy known for its fine wine during the last century BCE and the first CE. The area was extremely fertile due to the volcanic ash that made up the soil.

Phoebus stealing into your heart. Milton uses "serpere" to describe how Apollo will insinuate himself into Charles's heart. The verb has obvious snake-like connotations and may reflect the negative quality Milton attached to celebrations he considered pagan.

Sudden kind of heat. See Elegy 1 for a similar description of sudden erotic heat.

Samian teacher. Pythagoras of Samos. According to Ovid in Metamorphoses 15. 60-142, Pythagoras stressed the intemperance of eating meat.

Tiresias. In Greek mythology: as a young man, Tiresias happened upon Minerva as she was taking a bath. As punishment for viewing her naked body, Minerva deprived Tiresias of his sight. She later took pity on him and gave him the power to foresee events, replacing his physical sense of sight with the sense of the soothsayer.

Ogygian Linus and Calchas. In Greek mythology, Linus taught Heracles to play the lyre. Heracles struck Linus dead in a fit of rage after his teacher criticized him. According to Homer, Calchas was the seer whom the Achaeans brought with them as they sailed against Troy. He died of envy after meeting another seer whose abilities were greater than his own.

Monster making palace of Phoebus and Perseis. This probably refers to the ocean as the home of sea monsters. Perseis was one of the Oceanids and was also the mother of Calypso, Aeetes, Circe, Pasiphae, and Perses. Milton here is using a version of Perseis's life in which Apollo was the father of her children, but Helios is more often recorded as the father.

Shrines. Milton's refers to his almost contemporaneous composition, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," a poem that he placed first in his first published collection of poems in 1645.