After looking a little bit at Milton's life and works I see a few themes that stick out. One chief theme of interest to him was looking at what it means to be free. According to John Aubrey in "The Minutes of the Life of Mr. John Milton," Milton wrote tracks against the monarchy not out of any "animosity to the king's person, or out of any faction or interest, but out of a pure zeal to the liberty of mankind..." (location 523). This "pure zeal" for human freedom comes through in his early poetry and it seems like it is explored through another of his chief themes: looking at man's relationship with God. We can see this in his interest in Psalms 114 and 136. Psalm 114 begins saying that the children of Israel had after "long toil their liberty won"and that they had been able to do so by "the strength of the Almighty's hand" (lines 2, 4). To me this implies that human liberty, for God, is a central part of his plan for mankind. Milton saw liberty as a kind of God-given right of mankind.
We see in other works his early attempts to "justify the ways of God to men" in poems like "On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough." There is that question looming over this work (and later Paradise Lost) of why bad things happen to good people (or why bad things happen at all). With the death of child, such questions naturally come to the forefront of one's thinking. For me, it's interesting to see that in this sad experience he recognizes something of man's relationship with God. Upon thinking of the infant girl he writes, "For something in thy face did shine / Above mortality that showed thou wast divine" (lines 34-35). Probably Milton found a certain amount of comfort thinking that this tragic death was a returning to God and not simply an end.
I'm interested in Milton's acknowledgement of the "imperfection" of his language. There are a couple lines in his "At a Vacation Exercise" that stand out for me. At the beginning, as he hails his native language and basically apologizes for his imperfect use of it, saying that his tongue can do "but little grace" (line 11). In this poem and later in Paradise Lost I see Milton saying that his chief tool in trying to understand the nature of God and or relationship with Him is through words and writing. This elevates human language, even as he recognizes his own weaknesses with it. Despite whatever weaknesses there are inherent in language or in writing, Milton seems to be saying that language can illuminate us to understand something about God. As imperfect as he may be, Milton writes in the opening to Paradise Lost that "with no middle flight [his advent'rous song] intends to soar" (line14).
In that spirit of Milton, may I just say that I am excited with this beginning to our studies and I just hope that my own poor skills can be able to express the thoughts that Milton's work inspires. I'm looking forward to the rest!