Juvenes Ornatissimi : The Student Writing of George Herbert and John Milton
chapterposted on 23.01.2015, 16:46 by Sarah Marie Knight
'A bard is sacred to the gods and the priest of the gods'- Diis etenim sacer est vates, divumque sacerdos (line 77) -declares Milton's speaker in Elegia Sexta, written when he had just started his M.A. at Cambridge in 1629. Characterising poetic composition as highly serious, even sacerdotal, Milton apparently was as busy as the most dedicated religious officiant writing verse as a student. As a Cambridge undergraduate two decades earlier, George Herbert sent his mother Magdalen an English sonnet that also aligns poetry with piety:~ My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee, Wherewith whole shawls of Martyrs once did burn, Besides their other flames. Doth Poetry Wear Venus Livery? only serve her turn? Herbert was about seventeen when he wrote this sonnet, Milton around twenty-one when he Wrote Elegia Sexta: for both young men, what the poet should be and what poetry should do were clearly important questions. Through an exploration of their student writing we can learn the answers that these two juvenes ornatissimi ('most distinguished young men') formulated at the earliest stages of their literary careers:1 Precocious talents, Herbert and Milton first meaningfully articulated as students what they perceived to be the poet's responsibilities, arguing for the higher aims of poetry with images of holy bards and martyrs while negotiating their way through academic curricula. Particularly significant for this study, given the humanistic emphasis of early seventeenth-century curricula, are the ways in which these two profoundly Christian poets conceptualise the classical past and consequently represent the value o[ their own training in Greek and Latin for their poetic careers.