There were three stages in the development of Milton's poetic genius. In the first stage come all the early poems upto Lycidas. After this stage he wrote mostly prose except for most of his sonnets. It was at the final stage that some of his best works were produced. Some of his best poetry like Paradise Lost Paradise Regamed and Samson Agonistes are the product of this stage of Milton's development.
Ode on the Nativity of Christ is one of the early poems of Milton which shows unmistakable signs of his poetical genius. It is in this ode that we are exposed to a mind that is alert, varied and rich in fancy and imagination. We are assured, after going through this poem, of Milton's future poetical attainments.
Perfection of Form
The early Milton had an impression of Spenser on him. However, his keen love for beauty is at one with the Elizabethan poets. But Milton at the same time respected the classical conventions and did not rely entirely on inspiration to which the Elizabethans gave great importance. The strong intellectuality which is to be found in his earlier poetry is nevertheless "touched with a glow and beauty of the receding romantic colour, emotion and vital intentions" (Shri Aurobindo). There is no doubt that the blending of greatness and beauty is hard to find in any other English writer.
Love for Beauty
The lighter and more fanciful aspect of Milton's genius can be seen in his earlier poems. His love for beauty is best revealed in these poems. Poems like Allegro and Penseroso possess the charm of youth and there is a freshness about them that is uniquely Miltonic. Grierson has this to say of Milton's early poetry: "Of the wonderful richness and perfection of the art there can be no question. As I have said elsewhere, Keats' fine Odes are almost the only poems that give the same sense of sensuous and imaginative richness and perfection of form, that is capable of evolution and changing but always as appropriate cadences."
The Use of Blank Verse
The quality of word music in Milton's poetry is of a special kind. His Lycidas when read aloud can make the reader feel its blended harmony. There is not the least trait of monotony in it. Milton was master in the use of proper names and though Lycidas is composed in a metre different from blank verse the cadence and music of the epic and elegiac poems have a striking affinity to each other.
Milton's use of the blank verse was equally masterful. The use of the "verse paragraph" in his Comus was regarded as a great contribution to the poetic art in English. This poem shows Milton's originality to a great extent.
In the second stage of his development, Milton wrote mostly prose and a few sonnets. These handful of sonnets show a stateliness of manner and great dignity which is rarely equalled in English poetry. But all in all this was a period in which Milton had gone we might say, perhaps in a stage of "poetical hibernation." There was no marked development in his art. It was primarily a period of political pamphleteering and the mind of our poet seems to be fully occupied and excited by the heart of the controversy.
The Last Poems: Sublime, Incomparable
and Complete in Majesty
and Complete in Majesty
The final phase of Milton's poetic career (1661-1674), shows the maturity of his poetic powers. His puritanical background matured him into a serious and meditative sort of person. It is only natural that such a person should shy off from such subjects as the Arthurian legends and take up a more ambitious project for his epic - the fall of man from God's grace. Paradise Lost (1667) is remarkable for the fusion of the two important elements - the Hellenic and the Hebraic, the Renaissance and the Reformation. The great story of the fall of man is matched by an appropriate style rising to great heights of sublimity. The variety and contrasts of character, scenes and ideas were exploited by the poet to compose an epic which the world will not willingly let die.
Paradise Regained (1671) shows the dominance of the Hebraic element. However, Milton's world is three-fold; the medieval, the Renaissance and the Puritan; and it is noteworthy how he has been able to harmonise them.
Samson Agonistes (1671) on the other hand is a kind of classical tragedy depicting conflict in the soul of the hero. Critics have identified Samson with the poet and like him he has been pushed to the wall. The poet's faith in God, however, remains unshaken.
Thus, we see that there is a marked progress in Milton's poetical genius. The later Milton is far superior to the earlier Milton. Yet all the poems reflect the personality of the poet and show his classical and puritanical bent of mind. His experiments in versification and his skilful use of figures of speech not only show his originality but also secure to him a niche in the mansion of English Poetry.