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 calledHere's how Merritt Hughes annotates the passage:
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...
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).(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.
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.
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.