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NOTES ON THE ENGLISH POEMS
The basic assumptions which have guided the Editor in making the present volume of selections from the works of Milton are the following: first, that knowledge of the greatest English epic poet culminates in an acquaintance, in something like its entirety, with the monumental poem to which he devoted the major part of his creative effort and which the judgment of after times has pronounced the culmination of his work; second, that Paradise Lost is best given its first reading in a form which, while preserving the outline of the poem and including its greatest books and most memorable passages, omits much of what will seem to most readers comparatively uninspired and dull; third, that the essential requirements for an intelligent reading of Paradise Lost consist in an understanding of the principles and ideals which animated Milton's. life and determined his conception of his art. These principles and ideals are the theme of all that is most characteristic of him in prose and verse.
No poet was ever more completely autobiographical in the only sense in which a poet's biography is of really prime importance. It is to Milton himself, therefore, that we must turn for the most illuminating commentary on his own masterpiece. The first and second sections of the present edition contain a body of selections designed to present to the reader a picture of the man as he wished himself to appear before the world and to represent the range of his achievement in English poetry aside from the great epic. The third contains a considerable portion of Paradise Lost.
Wherever possible I have given whole poems and books rather than fragments. In the case of the excerpted passages the selection will ordinarily be found to be of sufficient length and completeness to constitute a literary unit. The notes include, besides a necessarily scanty body of essential explanations, some interpretative suggestions on what seem to me vital points.
The text of the English and the translations from the Latin poems are, with slight modifications, those of Moody in the Cambridge edition. The other translations are those used in the Bohn edition of the Prose Works.
THE PROSE AND POETRY OF
FROM THE LATIN POEMS, THE FAMILIAR
LETTERS, AND THE PROSE WORKS
FROM THE FIRST LATIN ELEGY The following passages from a Latin poem addressed to Charles Diodati, the most intimate friend of Milton's youth, give a glimpse of the poet's occupations in London during the intervals of his life at the University, and, like the other selections from the Latin verse, afford a refreshing insight into the temper of his early years. The lines were written at the age of seventeen, during Milton's second academic year. A dispute with his tutor had led to his temporary suspension or withdrawal from college. ... That city which Thames washes with her tidal wave keeps me fast, nor does my pleasant birth-place detain me against my will. I have no wish to go back to reedy Cam; I feel no home sickness for that forbidden college room of mine. The bare fields there, niggard of pleasant shade, do not please me. How ill does that place suit with poets! I have no fancy to endure forever my stern master's threats or those other actions at which my nature rebelled. If this is “exile,” to live under my father's roof and be free to use my leisure pleasantly, I will not repudiate either the outcast's name or lot, but will in all happiness enjoy this state of exile. Oh would that Ovid, sad exile in the fields of Thrace, had never suffered a worse lot! Then he would have yielded not a whit even to Ionian Homer, nor would the first praise be thine, Virgil, for he would have vanquished thee.
I have time free now to give to the tranquil Muses. My books — my very life - claim me wholly. When I am weary, the pomp of the theatre with its sweeping pall awaits me, and the garrulous stage invites me to its own applause....
But I do not stay indoors always, nor even in town; I do not let the spring slip by unused. I visit the neighboring park, thick-set with elms or the noble shade of some suburban place. There often one may see the virgin bands go past, stars breathing bland fire. Ah, how many times have I stood stupefied before the miracle of some gracious form, such as might give old Jove his youth again!...
But for my part, while the blind boy grants me immunity, I make ready to leave these fortunate walls as quickly as I may; and avoid far off the evil halls of Circe the deceiver, using the help of moly, that heavenly plant. It has been arranged for me to go back to the bulrush swamps of Cam, and to the raucous murmur of the school. Meanwhile take this poor gift of a faithful friend, these few words constrained into the measure of elegy.
FROM A LATIN LETTER TO ALEXANDER GILL Dated from Cambridge, July 2, 1628, and addressed to a former tutor. The purely scholastic discipline in vogue and the absence of genuine enthusiasm for letters and sound scholarship among the students are the sources of Milton's dissatisfaction with the university, a dissatisfaction which had been felt and expressed by many English humanists since the beginning of the Renaissance. ... Among us, as far as I know, there are only two or three who without any acquaintance with criticism