Elegy 6 is another installment in the series of letters and epistolary poems exchanged between Milton
and his dear friend, Charles Diodati. Extant are: a 1625 letter in Greek from Diodati to Milton (
1.98-99), a 1626 letter in Greek from Diodati to Milton (
to Diodati, and
. It was written in the winter of 1629, apparently in response to a letter
(now lost) in which Diodati described his Christmas reveling and decorously begged forgiveness for
the quality of his verse which had suffered amidst the festival atmosphere of his rural location. There is
also a sense that Charles was encouraging John to cast off his austerity, at least for a little while, and to
indulge at least briefly in the pleasures of youth. Milton adopts the playful tone of Diodati's letter and
incorporates it into his response, then he moves into much more serious claims about the relative ethics
of lyric and heroic verse.
Milton begins by lightly castigating Charles for his apparent intemperance, but reminds him that wine
and song are not enemies of poetry. He observes that Bacchus and revelry can inspire poetry and that
even Phoebus, god of poetry, indulged in Dionysian pleasures. According to Milton, many gods are
patrons of the "light elegy" inspired by wine. Though we may be tempted to wonder whether Milton
speaks sarcastically, his own use of elegy confirms the regard he has for the genre and invites us to take
his words at face value.
As valuable as elegy may be as a means of expressing the joy of feasting and love, Milton considers
heroic poetry a higher calling, and more suited to his own talents and vocation. Temperance is the
appropriate way of life for the epic poet, an idea that Milton advanced in the preface to Book 2 of his
Reason of Church Government
as well as in
The Apology to a Pamphlet
. Milton aligns himself with the
sober, "water-drinking" Homer of Greek epic. He deftly rejects his friend's exhortations to put aside
serious study for awhile and enjoy himself, maintaining that even the early years of an epic poet must
be absolutely devoted to unyielding temperance in life and in art.
Milton closes his address with a brief reference to his recently finished poem, "
On the Morning of
." Placing his own work after his description of the life of an epic poet is clearly
intended to link the two. It further implies that the ascetic lifestyle is necessary to write properly about
the birth of the Son of God, implying that he is more suited to the task than his less temperate friend.
He describes the parties Diodati attends as pagan saturnalia. By contrast, his
Christ's advent as a noble condescension, a violent supersession of pagan deities, and the beginning of
an apocalyptic end to the world.
The Sixth Elegy