Tuesday, June 01, 2010

annotating Milton

It arrived today, my desk copy of John Milton's Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, & Stephen M. Fallon (Modern Library 2007), & I think it's going to be just the ticket for this fall's Milton course. It's got all the texts I want to teach in a highly readable typeface, the texts themselves seem quite sound (if modernized), the introductions are concise and thoughtful, & the annotations seem to be pitched much more realistically at my students than the unholy quagmire of Flannagan's Riverside Milton or the unrealistic erudition of Hughes's warhorse 1957 Complete Poems and Major Prose.

Hughes is of course the obvious standard of comparison, & it's the text I used last time around for Milton. Kerrigan & co. (from now on I'll just call the book "ML" for short, ie Modern Library) includes obviously the same poems as Hughes, though the translations of Latin, Italian, & Greek texts are rather more elegant and idiomatic. It has almost as much of the prose, but with the infinite advantage of printing it in single columns, rather than the crunky double-columned layout of Hughes. And while Hughes opts not to annotate Christian Doctrine at all, & reprints the funky 1825 Bishop Sumner translation, ML presents almost as copious selections, with full annotation, in the far more readable Yale Milton version.

The test of a teaching text, however, is in its annotations. Take the famous simile of Paradise Lost I.300-4, where Satan calls upon his fallen angels (I quote from ML):
he stood and called
His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
in Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarched embow'r...
Here's how Merritt Hughes annotates the passage:
302-304. Perhaps a memory of Dante's spirits numberless as autumn leaves (Inf. III, 112-14) or of the image as C. M. Bowra notes it (in From Virgil to Milton, 240-41) in Homer, Bacchylides, Virgil and Tasso. Milton may have visited the shady valley, Vallombrosa, during his stay in Florence.
And here's ML:
302: autumnal leaves: Comparison of the dead to fallen leaves is commonplace; cp. Homer, Il. 6.146; Vergil, Aen. 6.309-10; Dante, Inf. 3.112-15. Milton's description is distinctly echoed in Dryden's 1697 translation of Vergil: "thick as the leaves in autumn strow the woods" (Aen. 6.428).

303: Milton likely visited the heavily wooded valley of Vallombrosa in the fall of 1638. The Italian place name literally means "shady valley." Note its somber aural combination with autumnal, strow, brooks, and embow'r. Etruria: classical name for the Tuscan region. Shades is a metonymy for trees as well as a name for spirits of the dead.
(I'm amused by the ML editors' odd preference for Vergil, even as they otherwise pursue an aggressive Americanizing ["somber" rather than "sombre"].) Note how ML gets across the same information in a less telegraphed, more undergrad-friendly manner. They lose the reference to Bowra, but give us hard & fast line references for Homer & Virgil. And they help out my students who have no frackin' idea what "Etruria" means, or why JM uses that odd word "shades" for trees.

But there's a couple of odd notes: The proleptic reference to how Dryden will use the passage – why's that there? And it's nice close reading to point out "somber aural combinations," but that's stealing my talking points, gentlemen.

And the bit that makes the biographer in me groan: "Milton likely visited the heavily wooded valley of Vallombrosa in the fall of 1638." Where's the evidence for that particular sight-seeing side-trip of his Grand Tour? Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 2000): "It is possible though not very likely that Milton visited the Abbey of Vallombrosa, a beauty spot about 18 miles from Florence" (94).

Thomas M. Corns & Gordon Campbell in John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought (Oxford, 2008), are rather more pointed:
The mention of Vallombrosa in Paradise Lost was the sandy foundation of a belief that while in Florence Milton made an excursion to the remote monastery of Vallombrosa, and that recollection of this visit eventually re-emerged as the image of the fallen angels who lay 'thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks | In Vallombrosa, where the Etrurian shades | High overarched imbower'. There is not a shred of evidence for this visit, which was not on the itinerary of seventeenth-century travellers, but the absence of evidence did not dampen the enthusiasm of nineteenth-century travellers such as Wordsworth (1837), Mary Shelley (1842), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1847). Mrs [sic] Browning, accompanied by dog Flush and husband Robert, was hauled up to the monastery in a wine basket mounted on a sledge pulled by four white oxen, only to be told on arrival that the monastery could not accommodate women (especially, one suspects, women who announced their intention of staying for three months to escape the heat of Florence). (115)
The legend, however sandy its foundations, lives on in the notes to the Kerrigan/Rumrich/Fallon Milton.


Vance Maverick said...

They may have stolen one of your prosodic talking points, but they've given you a referential one in exchange with the other hand.

The logic that, if Milton alluded to a thing, it was likely to be part of his personal armory of experience, is about like saying that, if Shakespeare is handy with jargon of the law or the sea, he must really have been some anonymous captain or barrister.

Steven Fama said...

I'll bet anything that if your students don't get "shades" they'll puzzle on "strow" too.

I'm tempted by the ML, but will stick with the Hughes -- how could I give up my goofy undergrad margin notes?

Milton posts always appreciated here!

walrus said...

As an undergraduate at Oxford some years back I used the Longman edition of Paradise Lost, ed Alastair Fowler.

Fowler comes out pretty well here, I think. First he quotes Isaiah 34:4 (‘as the leaf falleth off from the vine’), then he writes:

Fallen leaves were an enduring simile for the numberless dead: see Homer, Il. vi 146, Virgil, Aen. vi 309-10 and Dante Inf. iii. 112-5. But M. adds the concrete precision of an actual locality, again near Florence. If he visited Vallombrosa he would know that (as its name partly suggests) it was shaded by extensive deciduous woods. The use of ‘shades’, by metonymy, for foliage or woods is a characteristic of M.’s diction.

Mark Scroggins said...

Ah, you're so right, Walrus -- nothing beats Cary/Fowler for notes (I have the big Complete) -- but it's painfully overpriced for undergrads these days.

As I commented somewhere sometime, Steven, the primary driving force behind the selection of course texts is inertia: assigning the editions in which one has one's own annotations. When a publisher goes so far as to reset a book, I've found myself inserting new page number markings into my old edition.

Ed Baker said...

1967 and We used the Northrup Frye edited
20 th printing (1966) edition. Frye wrote the intro in 1951!

so every year or so a new edition.... with page numerationing changed?

geeze...I wonder how many copies around the College? University Nation were forced-sold?

a boon-doggle for the publisher: in this case
Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.

and the Professor was given a free copy just for requiring the new edition....

one of his first four "study questions":

"What hope is there for mankind?"

... and this was an upper-level/grad-school/ REQUIRED course.

I lasted less than two weeks... dropped the course dropped the school, went to Europe and Greece for 2 + years... best choice "free will" I ever made.

Anonymous said...

In one of the great essays that James Dickey wrote, he refers to John Milton as among

"the great stuffed goats of English literature."

and, as y'all know,
Dickey graduated from Vanderbilt University
magna cum laude with a degree in English in 1949
(and a masters from Vanderbilt the next year)

at a time when degrees meant something

Vance Maverick said...

Anon, Milton has been unjustly maligned by far better writers than Dickey.

Katherine said...

4 mph walk speed for horse, 18 miles from Florence - even this English major can guess you'd have to REALLY like pretty leaves.

Anonymous said...

That's just great! I'm going to recommend that to Stephane de Billy!