Charles Lamb has left an amusing reaction to his discovery that John Milton had, like most other authors in our twentieth-century understanding of the term, revised his work in the process of composition:
There is something to me repugnant, at any time, in written hand. The text never seems determinate. Print settles it. I had thought of the ‘Lycidas’ as of a full-grown beauty—as springing up with all its parts absolute—till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original written copy of it, together with the other minor poems of its author, in the Library of Trinity, kept like some treasure to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them, after the latter cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel. How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected! as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspirations were made up of parts, and those fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again, nor desire a sight of his picture, till it is fairly off the easel; no, not if Raphael were to be alive again, and painting another Galatea. 1
The very textual instability that has fascinated scholars of our own era and impelled us back into archival research was, for Lamb in Trinity College Library, “repugnant,” even menacing. It is not that he failed to recognize the alteration and displacement of words as a usual element of the creative process, but that, at least on that occasion, he wished to be shielded from it. Great art had to be as if born full-blown and perfect in order to be itself, retain its aura of invulnerable unity and strength.
For Lamb at Trinity, “Print settles it”—fixes the art as though in amber so that it can be admired through many ages. But he could preserve his illusion of the immortality of poetic language only insofar as he confined his reading of Lycidas to the 1645 and 1673 printed versions of the poem, which are indeed remarkably similar, although by no means identical. If instead he had consulted Lycidas as it was first published in the 1638