Early Modern Times – poetic injustice

Early Modern Times - poetic injustice

Dear readers,

In anticipation of All Hallows’ Eve and discussion this week of John Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost (first published 1667) in the fourth-year EMSP core course, Conceptions of State, Society, and Revolution in the Early Modern Period, let us turn to two forms of Miltonic revenge: a trick worthy of Hallowe’en and one of literature’s most formidable monsters.

First, Milton’s prank: this Public Domain Review piece highlights the botched frontispiece to the 1645 edition of Poems of Mr. John Milton (detail pictured above). The 37 year-old Milton was not yet blind (as expressed poetically in Milton’s complaint in Paradise Lost 3.23-26 that the light of heaven ‘Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn; / So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs, / Or dim suffusion veiled’), which was unfortunate for the engraver William Marshall. As the article comments, ‘Comparison with other Milton portraits suggests that Marshall supplied the poet and polemicist with an overly large nose, extra greasy hair and puckered lips’; the Latin description of ‘Milton aged 21’ is at odds with the middle-aged man depicted, while the muses in the four corners seem to turn away from the homely poet in the centre. The article considers whether the unflattering portrayal was intentional or due to incompetence. Milton, appalled by the portrait, had Marshall engrave the following inscription below it in Greek (which Marshall himself could not read): ‘Looking at the form of the original, you could say, perhaps, that this likeness had been drawn by a rank beginner; but, my friends, since you do not recognize what is pictured here, have a chuckle at a caricature by a good-for-nothing artist.’ Ouch!

Still, was Marshall on to something with the caricature? After all, Milton was a superb poet but a rather unpleasant man–infamous for his support of the regicide and pamphleteering for Oliver Cromwell, for upholding sexual inequality through his poetical descriptions of the rational Adam and his dim partner Eve, and for writing a pamphlet justifying the male right of divorce after his royalist wife left the conceited poet. Hence, was Marshall conveying Milton’s ‘nosy’ and ‘lippy’ ways, as well as his over-use of greasy hair Mil-tonic? Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century, Milton’s oh-so-erudite trick should be a warning to anyone attempting to publish an electronic version of Milton’s work using inaccurate bitmap images. They may find that the ghost of the poet or his fanatical devotees may hijack the publication through a Trojan Horse-style literary prank akin to the 1645 inscription: beware of GIFs bearing Greek.

Second, Satan’s rebellion which opens Paradise Lost may be interpreted as Milton’s literary revenge for the defeat of the English Revolution. By the time Milton composed his masterpiece, the English had rejected republican rule and restored the Stuart monarchy. For his revolutionary activities, Milton was briefly imprisoned but then freed in recognition of his sublime poetry. A superficial reading of his great poem–which narrates how Satan and the rebel angels, now cast into hell, seek revenge against God by plunging the newly-created Adam and Eve into sin–suggests that Milton had converted to royalism by depicting Satan’s rebellion against the monarch God as the greatest of sins. But the careful reader will note that Satan resembles Charles I and other earthly potentates more than he does Cromwell. In other words, Milton slyly upholds the position he held in his revolutionary pamphlets that only God is a legitimate king, and that all earthly monarchs are actually Satanic tyrants. Those who resist kings, such as the English revolutionaries in the seventeenth century, are in fact doing God’s work.

Researchers in Early Modern Times’s Department of Miltonic Failures have uncovered the poet’s unsuccessful and unpublished attempts at telling this story, before he had settled on the poem that we read today. Milton had considered retelling the Book of Genesis as Satan’s undermining of Adam and Eve’s hitherto successful run as craps players: Pair-o-Dice Lost. Miltonists have remarked on the poetical significance of hair in 4.301-308 (Adam’s ‘hyacinthine locks / Round from his parted forelock manly hung / Clust’ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad: / She as a veil down to the slender waist / Her unadorned gold tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved / As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied / Subjection, but required with gentle sway’)–indicating Adam’s manly rationalism in contrast to Eve’s fertile but potentially dissolute ways. Milton had originally conceived of the first couple as hairdressers (specialising in two-tone colourisation) cast out of their Edenic salon because of the original sin: Pair-o-Dyes Lost. And as a way of insulting his literary contemporaries, Milton had considered depicting Adam and Eve as caricatures of hated satirists Molière and the Earl of Rochester who are denied royal favour at court: Parodies Lost.

For more Hallowe’en fun, check out this article on the legendary Yorkshire witch Mother Shipton, and of course Dr. Kathryn Morris‘s delectably diabolical course next semester on Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. And just to underscore that Dr. Morris is the coolest Hallowe’en cat in Halifax, she has been presenting on Frankenstein and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World at the ‘biggest, geekiest sci-fi convention in Atlantic Canada’, this weekend’s Hal-Con!

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Trick-or-Treatise Studies Program

Page Break