John Milton composed "At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge" to conclude his presentation at Christ's College, Cambridge of Prolusion VI, a formal oration in Latin supporting the proposition that "Sportive Exercises on Occasion are not inconsistent with philosophical Studies." Prolusion VI may have fulfilled Milton's BA graduation requirement to participate in two disputations in the last two years of undergraduate study or his later MA requirement to participate in three (Campbell and Corns, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought 35). The poem—an unorthodox apostrophe in English—would have concluded the traditional Latin "Oratio" and the "Prolusio," a ludicrous lampoon of the College and its students.
Until 2008 most scholars accepted 1628 as the date of composition. The 1673 edition of Poems &c. Upon Several Occasions includes the preface "Anno Aetatis 19" and Milton was nineteen in July 1628, the start of the summer vacation. This early date suggests a highly precocious and advanced undergraduate. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen Fallon praise Milton for being "serious enough to be drafting at age nineteen a life plan dedicated to . . . a noble epic subject, an answerable style, a unique access to the divine secrets of the universe, and an enraptured audience" (11). Barbara Lewalski calls the prolusion "remarkably advanced" (31).
Recently, Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns, in their 2008 biography John Milton: Life, Work and Thought argue convincingly for a later date—the summer of 1631, when Milton was a postgraduate student pursuing an M.A. (58-9). This later date is not certain but it does promise to solve a few nagging problems. First, it is difficult to reconcile Milton's "starring role" as "Father" of the vacation exercise with undergraduate status. John T. Shawcross supports Campbell and Corns' dating by proposing that the line "all of us Sophisters," which would require the poem's date be 1628, when Milton was a sophister, has been mistranslated and should read "all our Sophisters." This alternate translation thus "does not include him but calls upon many participants in the exercise and in his audience. He is the 'Dictator' on this occasion, placing him, it seems likely, in a superior position" (182 n1). Milton's appointment to this starring role, Shawcross intimates, most likely results from a postgraduate status.
Campbell and Corns tread new territory, however, in their investigations into the content of the prolusion itself. At the beginning, Milton notes that the exercises had not been held the previous year, and Cambell and Corns have found records only indicate the exercises were cancelled in 1630—due to the plague. With regard to the prolusion's catalog of bird titles, moreover, the pair investigated allusions to names of contemporary students, concluding that "the birds only begin to flock in large numbers if the date of the prolusion is 1631" (59).
Finally, Prolusion VI's assertion that Milton was appointed "Father" due to the abrupt departure of the original "leader and commander of the Sophisters" can situate the poem within Milton's postgraduate career at Cambridge. Suggesting that the leader was removed from his position due to his participation in a prank, the prolusion describes a stunt in which fifty students destroy an aqueduct, "laying siege to the town" and holding Barwell Field ransom with thirst. Unable to find a corresponding record, Campbell and Corns conjecture that the prolusion cites a drunken encounter of five students with the authorities of Chesterton, a town near to Barwell Field, in April 1631 (59). Within this framework, the aqueduct's destruction equates to a drunken tumble into King's Ditch and urination in the river. Though their analysis mines profoundly for evidence, the pair's finding have produced the only satisfactory historical foundation for the story to date.
The most recent analysis of "At a Vacation Exercise" is M.K. Sugimura's 2009 book Matter of Glorious Trial: Spiritual and Material Substance in Paradise Lost, which favors Campbell and Corn's 1631 date. Given this contemporary critical inclination and Campbell and Corn's persuasively detailed argument, we will assume Milton composed and delivered the poem on 8 July 1631.
John T. Shawcross supports Campbell and Corns' dating by proposing that the line with which the pair most struggles—"all of us Sophisters," which would require the poem's date be 1628, when Milton was a sophister—has been mistranslated from the Latin and should read "all our Sophisters." This alternate translation thus "does not include him but calls upon many participants in the exercise and in his audience. He is the 'Dictator' on this occasion, placing him, it seems likely, in a superior position" (182 n1). Milton's appointment to this high position, Shawcress intimates, most likely results from a postgraduate station.
Milton employed the power conferred upon him by his "Father" role to embed an unlikely English poem into a pre-established "salting" tradition, which ultimately portrays "At a Vacation Exercise" as a calculated act of self-promotion—a promise for future attainment of new poetic heights. Preceding and accompanying "At a Vacation Exercise," Prolusion VI would have adhered to the tradition of the "salting" genre of oration, in which an undergraduate delivered a speech subject to judgment by his classmates. "Salting" ruled that if the oratory pleased its audience, the speaker earned a cup of spiced gruel; if it disappointed, he would be presented a "salted" and unsavory drink. By the 1620s, Cambridge University had developed its own particular salting practices, in which "a master of ceremonies pretended to be a college tutor, and so became the 'father' of his 'sons,' the new students" (Campbell and Corns, 60). A dialogue between "Father" and "son" of a lewd and mildly insulting nature, Cambridge's salting humorously envisioned a mode of interaction forbidden students and tutors by decorum and provided an unlikely context for the eruption of claims to future poetic eminence that "At a Vacation Exercise" entails.
Resembling past and subsequent outbursts of augury, however, the textual context in which "At a Vacation Exercise" anticipates Milton's future depicts his evolving strategy for introducing himself as an English epic poet. As early as 1629 with Elegy VI, Milton aired his intention to become England's "bardic Poet-Priest" (Lewalski, 38). Written in Latin and closely adhering to the form of Latin elegies, Elegy VI adheres to the verse epistle format while expressing desire to transcend the elegy's typical subjects and "sing the heaven-descended king." We see signs of this ambition also in On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which Shawcross notes "cannot in its form be considered epical, though its substance could be" (Shawcross, 339).
Coming just two years after On the Morning of Christ's Nativity according to the 1631 dating, "At a Vacation Exercise" deviates radically from Latin poetic heritage to claim Milton's place for epic canonization. Milton's intention that the poem prophesize his poetic destiny is exemplified by its isolation as a singular work in Milton's second collection of published work, the 1673 Poems. Within the collection, "At a Vacation Exercise" is seemingly liberated from the Latin speaking exercise bonds of its origin: the 1673 Poems places Milton's English work before its Latin counterparts without apology. At this point in Milton's career, "The poet of Paradise Lost needs and wants no introduction," Lewalski wryly notes (505). Moreover, the collection foregrounds Milton's juvenile work, most of which, like "At a Vacation Exercise," originated as a school exercise. Anthologizing these early exercises in craft, the 1673 Poems appear to proclaim the emancipation of these works from their original context, and to allow them reflection as individual pieces deserving of further consideration.
Within the 1673 Poems, "At a Vacation Exercise" is placed between an English translation of Book 1 of the Fifth Ode of Horace and "On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)"—both new in 1673. However, the text's Errata notes that the "Vacation Exercise" was misplaced and "should have come in" between "On the Death of a Fair Infant dying of a Cough" and "The Passion." So organized, the 1673 Poems bolster Milton's projections of his future as England's "bardic Poet-Priest" within "At a Vacation Exercise." The preceding poem, "On the Death of a Fair Infant"—also first published in 1673 and probably written in 1627-1628 (Campbell and Corns 27)—represents Milton's first attempt at a classical Pindaric ode in English, according to Stella Revard. "The Passion," which would have followed "At a Vacation Exercise," actualizes authorial identity from an unfinished work. Accompanied by a note expressing Milton's frustration over his inability to conclude his assignment—"This Subject the Author finding to be above the yeers he had, when he wrote it, and nothing satisfi'd with what was begun, left it unfinisht"—the poem is far from a gesture of humility. Indeed, "The Passion" materializes the author so thoroughly that it transforms the poem into a meditation on Milton's writing process, "a poem about Milton trying to work up the proper emotions to write a Passion poem" (Revard 38). Placing "At a Vacation Exercise" between poems that fashion Milton's identity as a fundamentally English poet, the 1673 Poems' original formation weaves the poem into a narrative of a national poet coming into his full powers.
As Elegy VI strategically bursts with epic intent inside a non-epic genre, "At a Vacation Exercise" further expands upon the initial prophecy of the verse epistle by addressing a larger audience. Milton's sudden eruption into "At a Vacation Exercise"—which proclaims he has "some naked thoughts that rove about / And loudly knock to have their passage out" (23-24)—uses the prolusion's opportunity to address a large group of collegiate peers. One only wonders what Milton's peers must have made of his bold entry into English beginning with the apostrophe "Hail Native language" after having listened to lewd farting and sex jokes from the "Prolusio." Milton's syntax produces this departure in English as a brief moment of frank communication between author and listener. After representing the English language as a wardrobe in an extended metaphor in the first stanza, Milton strips his language of poetic devices in the middle of the poem and admits, "Yet had I rather, if I were to chuse, / Thy service in some graver subject use" (28-30). England's native tongue, the poet suggests, is full of sartorial treasures or "richest Robes" that can be employed to greater ends perhaps even than in Latin (21). Milton turns the "salting" exercise on itself, using the opportunity it allows him to address his acaemic audience to mock the scholastic tradition: instead of making a "graver subject" of their own language, English schoolboys insult each other in Latin. However much the preceding Prolusion may have amused its Cambridge audience, "At a Vacation Exercise" reveals the rhetorical wealth and potential of the English language, as much as it does Milton himself.
"At a Vacation Exercise" prepares England, then, for Milton's later, grand announcement of his resolution to be his country's epic poet in Reason of Church Government Urg'd against Prelaty. Presumed to have been written in 1641—though its allusion to imprisonment of bishops may situate its composition in 1642, the year it was published (Campbell and Corns, 146)—Reason of Church Government would have been available for mass purchase and its syntax accordingly is "aimed at the general reader, not the expert" (Douglas Bush, 739). Milton used the opportunity to include a "personal digression" in the Preface to Book II that projects his destiny to craft epics "adorning my native tongue" for the common Englishman he addresses.
Ultimately, Paradise Lost can be seen to conclude Milton's narrative of self-presentation and realize the yearning for poetic purpose proposed by "At a Vacation Exercise." In "At a Vacation Exercise," Donald Friedman sees a promise fulfilled in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. Friedman writes,
In one sense, then, the beginning of Paradise Lost announces the end of a very long phase of Milton's education.… As always in Milton, the end of wisdom is action; the ultimate and only fitting result of the long maturation, the victory over 'the perpetuall stumble and conjecture and disturbance in this oure dark voyage,' is something done, in the service 'intirely reasonable' enjoined upon the poet by God and by his own awareness of his singular skills and observations.
("Harmony and the Poet's Voice in Some of Milton's Early Poems" 524)
In "At a Vacation Exercise," Milton seeks a topic worthy of the "action" he deems a suitable dénouement to his canonization. Remarkably, by inscribing his desire to "at Heav'ns dore / Look in, and see each blissful Deitie" (34-35) and to "sing of secret things that came to pass / When Beldam Nature in her cradle was" (45-46), "At a Vacation Exercise" acts as a belated preface to the poetic explorations of the 1667 Paradise Lost.
"At a Vacation Exercise" depicts Milton's early awareness of his skills and calling, and, as a result, proposes a challenge he will rise to meet. "At a Vacation Exercise" therefore consciously instills narrative within the history of Milton's development as a poet, and ultimately defines its conclusion in Paradise Lost as "the end of wisdom" (Friedman, 524).