MILTON & HIS READERS
The poet John Milton (1608–1674) wrote his first published work, “An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare,” while studying at Cambridge University. It first appeared in Shakespeare’s Second Folio in 1632 and again in a collection of Milton’s own Poems issued in 1645. During the English Civil War (1642–1651) and Commonwealth (1649–1660), Milton also published several influential Republican tracts, including Areopagitica (1644) on the liberty of the press. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the blind and financially insecure poet retreated from public life to complete his greatest achievement, Paradise Lost.
In this section, we meet Milton face to face, through portraiture, his books, and his readers. Exhibited are the first edition of Paradise Lost and later editions owned by two of Milton’s great literary admirers, Mary Shelley (1797–1851) and Herman Melville (1819–1891).
John Milton (1608–1674). Paradise Lost. A Poem Written in Ten Books. London: [Samuel Simmons], sold by Peter Parker [et al.], 1668.
One of the most influential of all English poems, Milton’s epic Paradise Lost retold the biblical story of Adam and Eve, whose temptation, fall into sin, and expulsion from Eden served Satan’s desire to corrupt God’s earthly creation. This copy of the second issue of the first edition, which introduced Milton’s ten book summaries and defense of “Heroic verse without Rime,” bears early ownership inscriptions, including “Eliza Ellery’s book 1743.”
William Faithorne (d. 1691). Portrait of John Milton. Crayon on paper. [London, ca. 1670]. William H. Scheide, Class of 1936.
This colored drawing is the only known likeness of the adult Milton produced from life. Less formal than the frontispiece that Faithorne engraved for Milton’s History of Britain in 1670, his drawing greatly impressed Milton’s daughter, Deborah Clarke, with its truth to nature when she first encountered it in 1721. Together with his engraving, Faithorne’s drawing served as the ultimate source for virtually every subsequent likeness of the elderly Milton.
John Milton (1608–1674). Paradise Lost. A Poem, in Twelve Books. [With:] Paradise Regained. A Poem, in Four Books. With the Other Poetical Works. Edited by John Hawkey. Dublin: Printed by S. Powell, for the Editor, 1747/1752. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.
On June 6, 1815, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) inscribed this two-volume set of Milton’s poetical works to 17-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797–1851). The couple was touring Devon’s southern coastline nine months after their scandalous “elopement” abroad, but nineteen months prior to their marriage. Mary’s journal records her assiduous reading of these volumes as she began working on Frankenstein, published in 1818. Volume two lies open to Book 10.
Mary Shelley (1797 - 1851). Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones, 1818. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.
Mary Shelley chose to quote Paradise Lost (Book 10: 743-45) as the title-page epigraph for Frankenstein: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” In the exhibited pages of her novel, the solitary creature, who has read Paradise Lost with deep understanding, bitterly compares his wretched predicament to the existential conflicts between Adam, Satan, and their Creator.
John Milton (1608–1674). The Poetical Works of John Milton, with Notes, and a Life of the Author. 2 vols. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1836. Joseph C. Baillargeon, Class of 1952.
Herman Melville (1819–1891) bought Milton’s Poetical Works in 1849, just as he was beginning to conceive of Moby Dick not simply as a whaling story, but as a tale of doomed obsession. His annotation of Paradise Lost, Book 10: 8-16, asked why God had designed Adam, unlike Jesus, to falter at the first temptation. Melville re-read these volumes during his voyage around Cape Horn aboard the Meteor in 1860.