WE CAN READILY IDENTIFY THE DECISIVE MOMENT setting Paradise Lost apart editorially from other English poems: the appearance of Patrick Hume's Annotations on Paradise Lost in 1695. But the unquestionable editorial distinction did not occur autonomously. To understand the possibility and nature of Hume's achievement, we require an act of the historical imagination to appreciate the differences between his time and not only ours but that before him. This is scarcely possible without a grasp of numerous conceptual matters that engendered a critical context for understanding and placing Paradise Lost. Many besides Hume matter for that. We may assume that then as now differing readers read the poem differently. But the realm of the knowable from the late seventeenth century is smaller than today. It is not entirely certain that the P. H. whose annotations are of such importance was in fact Patrick (or Philip) Hume, much less that he was a London schoolmaster, as the DNB (Dictionary of National Biography) has it. Given the conservative or traditional stance we have taken, however, we shall speak of him as Hume.
In 1667, when Paradise Lost was first published, and twenty-eight years later when Hume's Annotations appeared, the social and intellectual conditions differed markedly from those we know. Society was unrecognizably more hierarchical. Milton in his most republican moments assumed social degree as a basis of social order. The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin of Hume's notes assume not only for his readers but also for those of the poem a kind of education possessed by but a small part of the population. It is a serious question whether Milton assumed that he might have more than a handful of female readers. In the absence of journalism, a phrase like the popularity of Paradise Lost requires some reflection.
We can gain some sense of the likely readership by recognizing the differing social conditions. English society was not only more hierarchical (and therefore male-dominated). It was also much more religious. Because of that and because, in 1667, political parties did not exist, religion played a larger political and literary role than we readily imagine. Above all, England and London were far smaller than today. Common estimates of the population of the two were, respectively 4,900,000 and 400,000 in 1650, and 5,000,000 and 575,000 in 1700 (Hunter, Before Novels, 112). The small number of people sufficiently educated to read Milton's poem undoubtedly knew each other in some senses better because of their limited size, education at a handful of schools and academies, and two universities, not to mention membership in the clergy and other professions, Parliament and court circles, in institutions like the Royal Society and, above all, churches.
These considerations are not specific or restricted to Milton. Yet the enabling premise of this commentary is that the poem uniquely attracted distinguished commentary at an unparalleled early date. This needs to be shown. England had produced three unquestionably great poets before Milton. Others might be added to Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, but their importance is not open to serious question. The last of them had died in 1616, fifty-one years before the publication of Paradise Lost, but none of them had had their Patrick Hume.
That central point established, there are some interesting precursors of Hume. There were of course editions of classical authors with skimpy or abundant annotation. In his fashion, Ben Jonson made a classical of a vernacular work by ostentatious citation of classical historians for his Roman tragedy, Sejanus (1605). A very different situation exists with Michael Drayton's Polyolbion, published in two parts (1612, 1622). The eighteen “Songs” making up the earlier part were severally accompanied by his own brief topographical marginalia and “Illustrations” provided by the learned John Selden. “Song IX, ” for example, has fifteen marginalia and twenty-one “Illustrations” varying in length from four lines to six closely printed pages. Since the lines are not numbered, typographical symbols key comment to text. This is not editing as we conceive of it. The six pages on line 417 give Selden room to discourse on Druids, while much else goes unnoted. But the historical lore and background provide, as an edition does, an added layer to the authorial text. Jonson did not rely on his friend Selden, and John Bunyan provided his own marginalia for Pilgrim's Progress (1674). They consist of two main kinds or streams: words and phrases or even sentences explaining the action, both as plot and allegory; and, along with those helps, biblical citations. These resemble Jonson's