Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poetry Daily's Poet's Picks during National Poetry Month

William Archila's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2010

Sonnet 18
by John Milton (1608-1674) 

Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold;
Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our Fathers worship’t Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy Sheep, and in their antient Fold
Slain by the bloody Piemontese, that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl’d to the Hills, and they
To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
O’er all th’Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

* William Archila Comments:
When I first came across this Pertrarchan sonnet by Milton, it was the middle of a winter night in Oregon, and I was touched by its tone—a release of profound emotion. I read it aloud to myself in the silence of the house. It’s the testimony of a massacre, a plea for the dead. The message came to me as if it was a kind of pilgrim that had set out from the Alps. It captured my imagination and sent me on my own pilgrimage to the village of El Mozote, in Morazán, El Salvador, on December 11, 1981, when soldiers of the army’s select, American-trained Atlacatl Battalion, murdered hundreds of men, women and children in an anti-guerrilla campaign during the Salvadoran Civil War.

The “Slaughter’d saints,” in Milton’s sonnet, were the Vaudois, who lived isolated in the foothills of the Alps. They were descendants of the Waldeneses, a Christian sect that rose after 1170 in southern France, under the leadership of Peter Waldo, and broke with the papacy over dogmas and practices around 1179. Like them, the Vaudois believed the Bible to be the sole guide to salvation. In order to eliminate unorthodox opinion and thus achieve approval from the pope, the Duke of Savoy ordered the Vaudois to abandon their beliefs. This inspired a fanatic army of Savoyards, French, and Irish to attack the Vaudois on April 24, 1653/5? In the eyes of the Protestants, the Vaudois were the true Christians who for hundreds of years had kept alive the teachings of Christ. The army, without warning, killed an estimated 1,712 men, women and children.

I admire the way Milton addresses God to remember the massacre of these “slaughter’d saints” on judgment day—“Forget not: in thy book record their groans.” He asks for revenge. The Piemontese had been the original sheep of God. They followed the lord’s gospel while “all our Fathers worship’d Stocks and Stones.” This act of vengeance comes from “Avenge, O Lord” to “Babylonian wo.” This is truly an example of anger. It seems impossible for Milton not to be haunted by the massacre in Piedmont. I am struck by his outrage and capacity for protest. There’s an emotional trumpet sounded here.

Perhaps the reason why I’m drawn to this sonnet is because of Milton’s voice. It carries a sense of lament for the dead. He calls them “Saints,” and talks of their scattered bones, mother and infant rolled down the rocks of mountains. The most significant detail of appraisal is the notion that their moans are redoubled in the hills, their souls gone to heaven, and their “martyr’d blood and ashes” strewn on Italian fields.

Perhaps I’m drawn to the sonnet because of the way Milton manages to release his emotions within the limits of the form. The first quatrain rides on the “Forget not” phrase. The sestet begins either with “Their moans” in the eighth line or in the tenth line with “Their martyr’d blood,” which doesn’t matter because the octave and the sestet are joined together into one whole unit. There seems to be no separation between the octave and the sestet. He enjambs, and begins a new sentence at the end of the eighth line, introducing the theme of the sestet. This change implies a change of mood or a turn in the poem. It moves from anger to a plea for salvation.
I love the way this poem makes me feel because it reminds me that in moments of outrage, we’re experiencing a deep emotional sense of dejection. We’re angry, so we bargain. We ask ourselves, “What can I do to lessen the blow?” Milton’s answer is this sonnet, and for the reader it is the creative act of connecting with another voice. Close engagement with a poet’s work is in itself a form of creation. It is a beautiful elegy, and it brings me closer to coming to terms with the death of the many unburied men, women and children in El Mozote. Milton has hammered his loss into the text and it is done out of respect for the dead. In this sonnet, Piedmont, like El Mozote, is not forgotten.
 About William Archila:

William Archila lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife. He earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His poems have been published in The Georgia Review, AGNl, Poetry International, The Los Angeles Review, Notre Dame Review, Crab Orchard Review, Obsidian III, Rattle, Poet LorePoetry DailyPortland Review and Blue Mesa Review among others. His poems also will be appearing in Luvina Literary Magazine and Eclipse. He has been awarded the Alan Collins Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has also received a nomination for a Pushcart Prize in 2010. His first book The Art of Exile is the recent winner of the Emerging Writer Fellowship Award from the Writer’s Center. The Art of Exile is also currently featured in “First Things First: The Fifth Annual Debut Poets Roundup”—the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Poets & Writers.

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