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Young Milton

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A portrait of the young Milton

John Milton lived to nearly 66 years of age, dying in 1674. His most famous work, Paradise Lost, was published from 1658 to 1664, when he was already blind. Most people today know him only by this later work, but he published a substantial amount of poetry in the 1620s and 30s while still a young man. It is to this period that the twelve authors of this book turn their attention.

Of these early works perhaps the most widely admired now is the so-called 1645 Poems. Even though they were published in 1645, they were largely composed in the 20s and 30s. How these were arranged in the original and subsequent editions is the subject of a chapter by Stella Revard (Southern Illinois Univ.)

Milton himself brought out a second edition in 1673, just a year before his death, and in that edition he retained the order of poems from the 1645 edition. His ordering was completely altered after his death, first in 1695. She notes that “chronological order remained the norm for most modern editions,” but she decries this restructuring, saying that “to do so is to miss the experience that Milton specifically intended when he designed his editions.”

What was the reason for this reordering? She notes a book by Thomas Warton of 1785 that puts certain poems such as Lycidas first because “they had become widely known in musical settings rather than in their own right.” Other books place the best-known shorter poems first, while yet others adopt the purely chronological approach.

Revard highlights his 1634 A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle as “the fullest moral and spiritual manifesto of the young Milton.” The Maske (also included in his 1645 Poems) is given close examination by Blaine Greteman (Univ. of Iowa), who also pays close examination to changes- in this case changes Milton himself made between its performance in 1634 and its printing in 1637. This can be done thanks to the existence of two manuscript versions. Milton continued to “revisit and tweak his earlier drafts” as late as 1673, making the characters “more anonymous but also less abstract.”

John Leonard (Univ. of Western Ontario) is also a major contributor to this book, as he was to another of the books I am reviewing on Milton (see my review Milton and History posted here on May 5, 2013). Leonard is past president of the Milton Society of America, and one of the world’s most honoured and respected Milton scholars. He offers here a very important and persuasive look at a line in the poem Lycidas that, as he admits, has generated “a mountain of controversy.”

The line that has confounded scholars for centuries reads “But that two-handed engine at the door,/Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” It reminds me of a riddle that might have been posed by the Delphic Oracle, whose pronouncements confounded people in ancient Greece as they do today.

He quickly dismisses many explanations- “some arguments stand out as wheat from the chaff.” Notable among these are explanations predicated “on the false belief that Milton is talking about the kind of door that swings on hinges. If we believe that, we shall become unhinged.” After this fine example of wry humour, he observes that “few modern editors have noted the biblical provenance of ‘at the door.’” This is curious, as even novices know that biblical allusions permeate his writings. It just shows how easy it easy to be led down the primrose path of deception- a common mistake made by smart people in science as well as literature.

I will not attempt to summarise or reveal Leonard’s findings in his 25 pages of closely reasoned argument; suffice it to say this chapter alone makes the book worthwhile.

There is much else here of interest, including why Milton turned away from writing a great British epic about King Arthur he had envisioned, and a look at the letters he exchanged with his “special friend” Charles Diodati- letters that have been interpreted by some as homoerotic.

A refreshing and valuable study of Milton’s early life based on the very latest scholarship, Young Milton is edited by Edward Jones (Oklahoma State University), a past president of the Milton Society of America.

There is a typo on page 73: “about” not “abut”

Young Milton: The Emerging Author 1620-1642 (343 pages) is $110.00 from Oxford University Press. Visit their website:

Oxford has also just published a 2-volume work by John Leonard entitled Faithful Labourers that surveys and evaluates criticisms of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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