Dear Dad, I Hate to Inform You, But…

Now if it has happened that I have been born a poet, why is it strange to you that we, so closely joined by the loving bond of blood, should pursue related arts and kindred ways of life?

It is never easy to beak bad news to your parents. Even if you see no alternative, even if the facts of the matter are beyond your control (“I quit school,” “we’re getting divorced,” “I have cancer,”) there is still that inescapable certainty that you are disappointing them. Take John Milton’s advice: do it in a Latin poem that will continue to be anthologized forever.

Milton’s Ad Patrem is Milton’s admission to his father that he is… (gasp!) a poet. Young Milton was often anxious about how he measured up. If the Sonnet “How Soon Hath Time” is any indication, Milton was convinced at the tender age of 23 that he was a late bloomer. But Ad Patrem is Milton making a stand about his future and pleading with his father to understand:

Scorn not the poet’s song, a work divine, which more than anything else reveals our ethereal origin and heavenly race. Nothing so dignifies the human mind as its origin, and it possesses yet some sacred traces of Promethean fire. 

Up against a sucessful, businessman father who must have wished the money he spent in his son’s education would lead to a secure future, Milton makes a case for the value of poetry and suggests how poets served humanity through the ages. But he knows cold precedent from the ancient world won’t sway his father. He turns personal:

Do not, I pray, persist in contemning the sacred Muses; think them not vain and poor, by whose gift you yourself are skilled in setting a thousand sounds to fitting numbers…

Milton’s father was a talented musician and composer, and the younger Milton cleverly gives him credit for his poetic talent by suggesting that they are kindred spirits. Milton reads past what must have been his father’s outward disdain for an impractical career choice.

Although you pretend to hate the gentle Muses, I believe you do not hate them, for you did not bid me go, father, where the broad way lies open, where the field of gain is easier, and where the certain hope of laying up money shines golden.

Milton thanks his father for not forcing him to become a lawyer or take orders. In fact, he thanks his father for allowing him (after graduation) to further enrich his mind by secluded study “far from the city’s uproar.” His permisive father allows him to learn by providing him not only the time, but resources:

…through your kindness I may learn, through your means, if I care to learn. From the parted cloud appears science, and naked bends her face to my kisses, unless I wish to flee, and if it be not dangerous to taste.

His father’s support has offered Milton seemingly limitless knowledge, knowledge that may indeed be “dangerous” if pursued too far. That he worries such knowledge may be “dangerous to taste” suggests Milton imagines his father offering him the forbidden fruit itself. This has implications for his future masterpiece, the long-delayed return on his father’s investment, Paradise Lost, where the role of knowledge and paternal concern looms large. But as he pens Ad Patrem, this remains far in his future. Beyond blindness, beyond the interregnum and beyond his political pamphlets. The young Milton recognizes that he cannot hope to repay his father’s kindness.

But as for you, dear father, since it is not granted me to make a just return for your deserts, nor to recompense your gifts with my deeds, let it suffice that I remember, and with gratitude count over, your repeated gifts, and treasure them in a faithful mind.

Unlike his greatest creative achievement, Satan, Milton knew how to be grateful, even if he could never hope to repay that “debt immense of endless gratitude” (PL, IV 52).

David A. Harper, 15 June 13

All quotations from Ad Patrem are from the translation available at the Dartmouth Reading Room.

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