After Shakespeare’s death his works were collected into a folio and printed. Two hundred thirty-three editions out of the seven hundred fifty originally printed still exist, and some of them have notes and marking from early readers. Now a Cambridge fellow believes he has compiled enough evidence to identify one annotator’s handwriting as belonging to the great John Milton.
Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren made the discovery in response to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Naturally he hesitated to suggest this, because it’s too easy to see what you want to see.
But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”
Milton, as much as Shakespeare, remains our contemporary. As Wordsworth put it in a sonnet from 1802, ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee.’ One half of a nation almost as bitterly — if not as bloodily — divided as in his day needs to understand how the blind, scorned radical, ‘though fallen on evil days… In darkness, and with dangers compassed round’, channelled his dismay at the failure of England’s revolution and the restoration of monarchy into a masterpiece that finds salvation through despair. In 1660, Milton was arrested, imprisoned and might have gone to his death as an impenitent regicide without a few well-placed admirers. His epic, with its aim to ‘assert eternal providence/ And justify the ways of God to men’, climbs from his pit of disillusion to find meaning and hope in calamity. A hero for Remainers, then.
Boyd Tonkin urges us to read Milton today, because he will speak to us if we will listen. April is the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost‘s publication. (via Prufrock News)
Is the literary mash-up a passing fad or a fertile new genre? The art of mashing up involves putting together two completely incongruous genres, only to discover that something in the high-cultural original matches the low material with which it is mixed. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the Bennet girls prepare themselves for encounters with the undead just as enthusiastically as they prepare themselves for husband-hunting in the original.
John Milton was surely a super-hero bard avant la lettre. All those angels tumbling from heaven’s crystal battlements, flying across the universe to visit Earth. Think of the war in heaven, where the fallen angels pit “their engines and their balls / Of missive ruin” against the less well-armed Cherubim. It could surely have profited from the involvement of Wolverine and Gambit, while Satan’s concordat with Magneto would challenge the Archangel Michael, even with his sword that “felled / Squadrons at once, with huge two-handed sway”.
The great John Milton lived in Berkyn Manor (known later as the Bull Manor), a house in Horton near Slough, Berkshire, for about three years (1636-1638). He was out of Cambridge, apparently due to a conflict with his tutor, and was living with his parents. He didn’t write his greatest works there. Paradise Lost was published in 1667. He worked on it at his cottage, which is open to literary tourists.
Photographers have drawn attention to the Berkyn Manor by distributing their shots of the dilapidated interior, which has been sitting empty since it’s last owner died in 1987.