Well Edited ... but Too Many Notes: The Riverside Milton Improves upon Earlier Editions, despite 'Muddled' Interpretation

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The Riverside Milton improves upon earlier editions, despite `muddled' interpretations.

Reading John Milton is one of the preeminent pleasures available in English literature. From the poignancy of the elegy "Lycidas" to the epic grandeur of Paradise Lost, Milton's verse exhibits an astonishing range and power. His achievements in prose similarly are impressive. His "Areopagetica" is the supreme defense of freedom of the press, and of intellectual freedom generally.

Milton (1608-1674) was a radical thinker. He defended regicide, argued in favor of divorce and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. As a young man he set himself the goal of becoming the greatest epic poet in English, and he had both the talent and determination to achieve that goal.

Now, Milton's spectacular achievements are available in a new, heavily annotated edition. The Riverside Milton (Houghton Mifflin, 1,213 pp), edited by Roy Flannagan, includes Milton's complete verse and a generous selection of prose. The standard for such a compilation is Merritt Hughes' 1957 edition, which inevitably has become somewhat dated. In many important ways, the Riverside is Hughes' equal or better.

The title of the new book itself raises high expectations. Riverside editions of Chaucer's and Shakespeare's works have become the gold standard of scholarly editing, the kind of books that everyone from first-time students to established scholars can use and rely on. But while distinguished teams of editors prepared the other Riversides, Flannagan is the sole editor of the Milton volume. He not only edited the text and composed all the introductions, annotations and glosses, he also did the typesetting and formatting on his personal computer. Thus, except for a fine essay on the texts of Milton's works by John T. Shawcross, The Riverside Milton is all Flannagan.

Flannagan's choices in editing the texts of Milton's works literally are conservative; he faithfully reproduces the early printed versions of Milton's works, including facsimiles of original title pages, and presents Milton's poems as they were printed, rather than trying to rearrange them into a necessarily speculative order of composition.

One editorial decision that might initially seem off-putting: Flannagan's choice to retain original spelling and punctuation. Whatever mild adjustments a modern reader needs to make to accommodate archaic orthography, however, are worth the trouble. The original forms provide an access to rhythm and sound that disappear with modernization. Indeed, crude modernization can distort Renaissance texts in the same way colorizing distorts classic black-and-white films.

Flannagan's introductions generally are adequate, if a bit uneven. For instance, the introduction to the "Nativity Ode" runs four pages, while the editor devotes less than one page to the equally significant and far more influential "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." The introductions consistently call attention to the musical qualities of Milton's works, noting, for example, the operatic qualities of Paradise Lost and "Comus."

The primary weakness of the book is its notes. Modern readers need assistance with any Renaissance text, to clarify archaic and obscure vocabulary and allusions to unfamiliar events and debates. Milton's formidable command of classical and Biblical literature increases the need for editorial guidance. Many of Flannagan's notes perform their function admirably, but a significant fraction, probably between a fourth and a third, are in various ways inadequate -- or plain wrong.

The more obvious errors are the least dangerous, as when Flannagan mistakes the moon for the Earth in Paradise Lost Book 8. In the masque "Comus" the notes gloss the title character's "glass of liquor" which he uses to tempt the virginal Lady, as a "mirror." Less obvious errors, on the other hand, can be misleading. Though the notes frequently cite Latin and Greek, the translations are sometimes inaccurate and, in at least one case, it seems the editor doesn't know Greek well enough to distinguish verbs from nouns. …