On Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the Norton Anthology

Graduate school is a time of ever-narrowing specialization. Any reader who has spent more than a moment on this blog will note my obsession with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great work. But one of the pleasures of teaching in a department is that you must teach outside of your specialty. With that comes the opportunity to discover what you don’t know.

I don’t pretend to have read all of the major works in English literature, but one of the large holes in my background, despite having completed a Ph.D., is to have never read John Milton’s Paradise Lost in its entirety. Influenced by the syllabus on which I modeled this semester’s survey of English literature to 1800–by a scholar who took a Milton seminar in graduate school–I added it to the syllabus. We have just completed Milton’s poem in class, and I found it to be a wonderful read.

Satan is the most delicious anti-hero. I subscribe to the commonplace that the poem’s great test is to entice one to Satan’s side while continually indicating that being susceptible to his charms is a sign of one’s fallen state. Although I feel some responsibility to share with my students the ways in which Milton continually undercuts Satan’s appeal, most resisted to the end. One student expressed disappointment that Satan disappears from the final two books.

And speaking of the final two books, I’m thoroughly annoyed by the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Literature editors on the form in which it is presented. The anthology version is divided into 12 books to accord with the text which is being reprinted, the second edition (1674). The first edition (1667), which had 10 books, appears in two forms. The first printing lacks the argument. Apparently at the printer’s request, though possibly at Milton’s, prose summaries were added to the front matter of the 1667 printing (Fletcher, Milton’s Poetical Works, vol. 3, 177). When the poem was divided into 12 books for the 2nd edition, each book’s argument is now paced at the beginning of each individual book.

The arguments are a wonderful aid to readers, and it seems to me that readers who are encountering this work for the first time would derive considerable benefit if the arguments were included in the anthology. The Norton Anthology editors only include the argument for the first book. The anthology has a brief footnote to explain the complex textual situation, and it also offers this note on the presence of the argument for the first book: “We reprint the ‘Argument’ for the first book” (1831 n. 1). As a factual statement, it’s unimpeachable. But the statement has the following implication: For reasons we don’t care to go into, we do not reprint the ‘Argument’ for the remaining books.

The arguments are part of the version that the anthology claims to reprint, just as the defense of unrhymed verse only appears in the 2nd edition. Which leads me to surmise as follows: the arguments for books 2 to 12 are omitted to save space. The editors presume, I suppose, that most readers of the anthology will only read a small selection of books. I think that this decision is an error: the argument for each book should be included with the text. At least for myself in the future, I’m going to prep this better so that I can provide students with the arguments to accompany the text.

Harris Francis Fletcher, John Milton’s Complete Poetical Works: Reproduced in Photographic Facsimile vol. III. (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1945).

Note: This post, in its former state, was poorly informed about the printing history. Thanks to some time with Fletcher, I think I’ve at least figured out the printing history of the Arguments, at least as that history was understood in 1945.

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