Melville's Marginalia: Milton's Poems

By Robillard, Douglas | Leviathan, March-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Melville's Marginalia: Milton's Poems


Robillard, Douglas, Leviathan


In a letter of February 24, 1849 to Evert Duyckinck, Melville spoke of reading Shakespeare's works in "an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier." This was the edition that Melville had purchased, in seven volumes, published in 1837 in Boston by the firm of Hilliard, Gray and Company The set became a close companion for Melville, liberally marked and annotated. During the same year he also acquired a two-volume set of The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited by John Mitford and published by the same Boston firm in 1836. These volumes, too, he inscribed extensively with his marginalia, by marking passages that were meaningful for him in his work as an author and by recording his reactions in comments written in the margins of the pages.

This set, like the Shakespeare, was in "glorious great type" and included numerous footnotes calling attention to other specimens of Milton scholarship. It often associated Miltonic passages with the works of other waiters, among them Virgil, Horace, Shakespeare, and du Bartas. Melville followed suit by offering his own associations, writing the names of other writers at appropriate places: Dante, Tasso, Virgil, Shakespeare, and others. For instance, the phrase "dreadful interval" in Book VI of Paradise Lost reminded him of Thomas Campbell's phrase, "the deadly space between," and he made the connection between Milton's heavenly battle and Campbell's earthly struggle between warships. For Melville, the volumes of Milton, like those of Shakespeare, were storehouses of usable words, phrases, lines, and passages to be absorbed and to find their way into his own fiction and poetry, in quotations, paraphrases, and allusions.

The importance of Milton's poetry to Melville's writings has long been recognized. Henry F. Pommer's Milton and Melville published in 1950 and reprinted in 1970, pointed out allusions and quotations. Mansfield and Vincent's notes to the Hendricks House edition of Moby-Dick (1952) developed the idea of the Miltonic Satan's relationship to Ahab. A number of articles pointed out borrowings and echoes in Melville's work taken from the writings of the English poet. However, since Melville's copy of Milton's poems was not available for study when these were written, it was not possible to know exactly the extent of Melville's markings and marginal annotations. The two-volume set of Milton was acquired as part of Princeton University's rare book collection, and even a cursory inspection makes it clear that Melville read his Milton assiduously and marked passages and occasionally expressed his own opinions about what Milton was saying.

Although Pommer worked without having access to the volumes Melville owned, he speculated upon which edition Melville might have used. (1) He listed, among others, the 1836 edition from Hilliard, Gray and Company, linking it ("an interesting though weak link," he says) by the printer's mark of the dolphin and anchor. He then cites Melville's remark in Moby-Dick, Chapter 55, about "the book-binder's whale winding like a vine-stalk round the stock of a descending anchor--as stamped and gilded on the backs and title-pages of many books both old and new."

Two more recent articles draw upon the Milton volumes for analysis of Melville's writings. Robin Grey's "Surmising the Infidel: Interpreting Melville's Annotations on Milton's Poetry" uses both markings and Melville's annotations to "infer a distinct, composite interpretation of Milton's poetic and theological agendas" and to point out how "Melville was a highly engaged and frequently ingenious reader of Milton's poetry." (2) Daniel Goske's "Melville's Milton" in the Princeton University Library Chronicle suggests that Melville studied Milton's poetry "at several stages of his writing career" and that at least at one time he was rereading Milton at the time he was studying Dante. (3) Both articles underline the need for a complete record of all the marginalia and for studies of Milton's influence upon Melville's fiction and poetry. …

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