Milton and the Cultures of Print

By Fulton, Thomas | Humanities, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Milton and the Cultures of Print

Fulton, Thomas, Humanities

NEW JERSEY UNDER THE PORTRAIT frontispiece of the 1688 edition of Paradise Lost lies a powerful endorsement from England's poet laureate, John Dryden: John Milton's masterpiece had surpassed all former epics by combining the "loftiness of thought" of Homer with the "Majesty" of Virgil. Dryden's words - much like those of Ben Jonson in the First Folio of Shakespeare - preface a magnificent edition that helped to secure Milton's place in literary history.

Yet Milton's work during his lifetime often assumed a less dignified and more ephemeral form, and his efforts to set his ideas in print were constantly thwarted by social opposition and governmental controls. Some of his writing, such as a radical "Digression" to The History of Britain, or the controversial work on theology, De Doctrina Christiana, never made it into print in his lifetime. A major exhibition at Rutgers University, entitled "Milton and the Cultures of Print: An Exhibition of Books, Manuscripts and Other Artifacts," explores the various phases of Milton's career, asking at each juncture what light the manuscript evidence sheds on Milton's printed corpus.

The exhibition, supported by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, showcases about 150 books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, and other artifacts - including such things as a quill pen and some bronze medallions - from Rutgers' large collection of Milton's works and on loan from other libraries.

The exhibit begins with a case entitled "Milton's Library." The actual books from Milton's library are rare indeed - only seven have been discovered. Most of them Milton acquired when he was young, and include items such as the plays of Euripides, and a 1611 King James Bible that records the births and deaths of family members.

Despite this scant record, we are able to reconstruct a large number of the books that Milton had handy because his reading notebook, known as a commonplace book, has survived. Commonplace books were structured notebooks designed to organize excerpts from reading in a way that could be retrievable for ready use. Milton records hundreds of notes, usually providing a citation comprehensive enough for us to trace the exact edition he used, and how he used it. In many cases, such as his reading of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - on display in Milton's magnificent 1602 edition - Milton provided only enough information in his notes to enable him to return to the volume should he need to quote a particular passage.

In a revealing indication of how Milton's reading habits deviated from his contemporaries, this 1602 edition of Chaucer comes with printed markers - small pointing hands called "manicules" - that point to commonplaces in Chaucer's writing worthy of extraction. A fashionable addition to printed books in early modern England, these marked commonplaces indicate what was valued among readers: the pithy aphorism or sentence, usually formulated in English poetry with a tightly endstopped couplet.

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