A NOTE ON THE TEXT
Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were first printed in tandem. Although the book was licensed on July 2, 1670, and entered into the Stationers’ Register on September 10, 1670, all known copies bear the date 1671. The book, postdated, was probably issued in 1670 (Knoppers xcviii–xcviv, 1). Its publication occurred about midway between the first edition (1667) and the second edition (1674) of Paradise Lost. The back of this haphazardly printed volume contains a list of errata for each poem and ten lines omitted (whether a late revision or a printing error, we have no way of knowing) from Samson Agonistes.
Both poems appear on the title page, but whereas one is a bit oversold, the other is distinctly undersold. Paradise Regained was the featured attraction, set in large letters at the top of the title page. The name of the brief epic, whatever else Milton may have had in mind, encouraged browsers in London bookstalls to believe, somewhat misleadingly, that this new work was a sequel to Paradise Lost. Samson Agonistes, set in smaller print at the bottom of the title page, is introduced a line earlier by the words “To which is added.” The title page’s treatment of Samson seems to a modern reader breathtakingly casual: this has to rank among the most consequential afterthoughts in English publishing.
Since there are no surviving manuscripts of Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes, our text for these two poems derives primarily from their first edition. All subsequent printings took place after Milton’s death in 1674. The second edition of 1680 introduced numerous variants, most of which reappeared in the third edition of 1688. It is a measure of the unreliability of the second and third editions that neither corrected the errors listed at the end of the first. In fact, the texts of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were not emended in the manner specified by the 1671 printing until the variorum of Thomas Newton (1752; reissued 1753). The two poems continued to be published together in early editions, and the tradition persists to this day, as our own volume attests. Controversies about dating the composition of the works, especially the vexed case of Samson Agonistes, are discussed in our headnotes.
Texts for the main body of Milton’s shorter poems, including those in Italian, Latin, and Greek, are based on Poems of Mr. John Milton (1645) and the revised and enlarged second edition of this book in 1673. We have also consulted the holograph drafts and transcriptions of those shorter poems found in the Cambridge Manuscript (also called the Trinity Manuscript). Unique problems with the texts of A Masque and “Lycidas” are considered in the headnotes to those works. In general, we have drawn on clarifying moments in the early printed versions and the manuscripts, when they exist, without feeling bound to the old editorial idea of a singular “copy text.” The virtues of an eclectic approach to editing Milton have been ably set forth by John Creaser (1983, 1984).
Milton’s shorter poems are organized in a manner unique to this edition. Numerous editors have tried to retain the order in which these poems appeared in Milton’s 1645 Poems, finding a way to tip in works that first appeared in his 1673 Poems, translations found in his prose works, or pieces never published during his lifetime but discovered subsequently by scholars. Others try to present all the minor poems in their probable order of composition. The result in both cases is chaotic to the modern eye. Poems in different languages jostle against each other. Some works, particularly the shortest of the minor poems, seem to get lost in the mix, and even if all the poems in an edition have been numbered sequentially, remain difficult to locate without consulting a table of contents that is itself difficult to locate.
No doubt this teeming profusion is revealing. It shows that the young Milton did in fact move from language to language, genre to genre, turning the different aspects of his education into different expressions of his developing literary ambitions. But we think that little will be lost in the way of revelation by reconfiguring the minor poems, while something will be gained in the way of clarity and ease of use. We have therefore divided them into three groups. “English Poems,” much the largest one, contains all the poems Milton wrote in English, including classical and biblical translations, with the exception of his sonnets. A second group, “English and Italian Sonnets,” includes the poems entitled “Sonnets” and numbered in both the 1645 and 1673 editions. The sonnets group has the further justification that its poems should for some purposes be studied together, given their power and originality in the history of this important poetic form. A final category, “Latin and Greek Poems,” contains all the poems written in those languages; the English prose translations accompanying these pieces are the work of Gordon Braden, and were commissioned for this edition. Within each section the works have been placed in their probable order of composition. “A Chronology of Milton’s Poems,” prepared by Stephen B. Dobranski, allows readers to determine at a glance the likely time frame for the composition of any poem printed in this edition. Our headnotes and annotations, first published in 2007, have been revised and updated for this printing.
We have sought to ease the journey of modern readers. Most of Milton’s capitalization, italics, and contractions have been removed. Quotation marks came into vogue some years after the death of Milton, and do not appear in early manuscripts or editions of his works. We have added them. His spelling has been modernized and Americanized; “musick” becomes “music,” and “vigour” becomes “vigor.” But there are important exceptions to these preferences. Our efforts at modernization have been checked by a desire to preserve whenever possible the sound, rhythm, and texture of his poems. We have therefore left archaic words and some original spellings intact; “enow” does not become “enough,” and “highth” does not become “height.” In cases where Milton’s contractions indicate that a syllable voiced in the modern pronunciation of a word is to be elided, as with “flow’ry” in l. 84 of “At a Vacation Exercise” or “Heav’nly” in l. 15 of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” we have left them alone. Sometimes the final -ed in words like “fixed” is not voiced, as in lines 70 and 141 of the Nativity Ode. Where -ed is a voiced syllable, as in l. 4 of “Il Penseroso,” we have placed an accent mark slanting down from left to right.
Punctuation offers the most troubling questions for modernizers. For punctuation, or “pointing” as it was called in Milton’s day, serves two purposes at least. It displays the logic of the syntax, aiding a reader in the basic chore of construing sense. But especially in a poetic text, and most especially in poetic texts of the seventeenth century, punctuation also indicates rhythmic pauses. It is generally assumed, perhaps without much evidence, that a semicolon points to a longer pause than a comma, a colon to a longer pause than a semicolon, and a period to the most pronounced pause of all. Milton’s punctuation is difficult to update for modern readers in both of its functions. With regard to construing sense, his syntax does not come packaged in the modern unit of the sentence. His clauses twist and turn, sending out tendrils of sense both forwards and backwards. Linking verb with subject is sometimes a puzzling chore, as it is in reading Latin. His pronouns are often hard to track down to single antecedents. Perhaps, in some instances, ambiguity rather than clarity was the author’s intention. On the rhythmic side, many of the commas and semicolons that look superfluous by modern standards could well indicate the sound-patterns of his verse. But in poetry, as in good prose, sound-patterns are, above and beyond their inherent beauty, meaning-patterns. Countless works of literary criticism have demonstrated that sound effects in literary language contribute to meaning, and we see no reason to doubt these results. Milton, moreover, is widely judged to be a master of this aspect of literary craftsmanship.
Given these concerns, we have sought within a general framework of modernization to respect the punctuation schemes developed by Milton and his publishers. We remove a number of commas. Some are changed to semicolons and periods for the sake of readability. But in places where marking the rhythm seems paramount, we reproduce either closely or entirely the pointing of the early texts.
The addition of quotation marks at times restrains the growth of ambiguity in a reader’s mind, particularly in the case of “Lycidas,” where the various speeches reported in the course of the poem could be punctuated differently than they have been in our text of the poem. Some readers find these multiplying uncertainties both needless and overvalued. Some prefer being suspended in the free-form possibilities of the original pointing. But whatever benefits may stem from preserving this feature of Milton’s early texts are in our view outweighed by the crowning benefit of making this difficult author as readable as possible for modern students. Like all editions, ours is only a beginning. Old spelling texts with old-style punctuation are readily available, and should a reader become particularly fascinated with a specific passage or work, we strongly recommend that these versions be consulted.
The 1645 Poems informed its readers that “this and the following Psalm were done by the author at fifteen years old.” They could well have been school exercises, as is usually assumed, but Milton’s father’s combination of faith and musical skill expressed itself in a keen appreciation for the Psalter. Milton Sr. in fact contributed six settings to Thomas Ravenscroft’s The Whole Book of Psalms (1621). These translations are his son’s earliest surviving English compositions.
When the blest seed of Terah’s faithful son,1
After long toil their liberty had won,
And passed from Pharian fields to Canaan land,3
Led by the strength of the Almighty’s hand,
Jehovah’s wonders were in Israel shown,
His praise and glory was in Israel known.
That saw the troubled sea, and shivering fled,
And sought to hide his froth-becurlèd head
Low in the earth; Jordan’s clear streams recoil,
As a faint host that hath received the foil.10
The high, huge-bellied mountains skip like rams
Amongst their ewes, the little hills like lambs.
Why fled the ocean? And why skipped the mountains?
Why turnèd Jordan toward his crystal fountains?
Shake earth, and at the presence be aghast
Of him that ever was, and ay shall last,
That glassy floods from rugged rocks can crush,
And make soft rills from fiery flint-stones gush.
Copyright © 2012 by John Milton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.