John Milton wrote most of the poetry for which he is celebrated when he was either in his twenties or in his fifties and sixties. During his thirties and forties—at the time of life when Shakespeare wrote most of his plays (and all of his mature ones)—Milton composed relatively little verse: 16 sonnets, 17 psalm translations, and occasional poems amounting to 107 lines in Latin and 4 in Greek. Instead of more poetry he wrote enough prose to fill nearly seven of the eight hefty volumes that make up the Yale edition of his Complete Prose Works. Early in this period, in a passage from The Reason of Church Government (1642), at once self-deprecating and self-promoting, he expressed his frustration that the political and social turmoil of the time seemed to require controversial prose and left little leisure for poetry: “I should not choose this manner of writing, wherein knowing myself inferior to myself, led by the genial power of nature to another task, I have the use, as I may account it, but of my left hand” (this page). Yet his contemporaries knew him better for this not-so-genial prose than for the poetry he believed himself born to write.
Modern readers may find this historical fact difficult to digest because his prose writings are not so immediately pertinent now as they were in their original historical circumstances. Had Milton never written a line of verse, an academic audience might still have found its way to several of the prose works, most likely including Of Education, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Areopagitica would perhaps have reached a wider audience, both for its rhetorical brilliance and its landmark contribution to the developing case for freedom of expression. But without the poetry to spark our interest, few today would read much of the prose. And that would have been our loss, as the vigorous, combative, and often luminous prose gathered in this volume suggests. Milton championed causes that provoked and sometimes outraged his first readers and remain controversially relevant today inasmuch as they address the definition of marriage, the desirability of religious toleration, the separation of church and state, and the duty of the individual when confronted with tyranny.
This edition includes the complete texts of several of Milton’s most salient prose works along with extensive selections from others. We have modernized spelling and punctuation in the interest of readability. Perusing the texts in their original spelling and punctuation would more literally approximate the experience of a seventeenth-century audience. In a more substantial way it would diverge from that experience. The frequent capitalizations, variations in spelling, and long and serpentine sentences characteristic of prose printed during the early modern period would be as strange and off-putting to today’s readers as they were familiar and unremarkable to our seventeenth-century predecessors. The editor who would modernize Milton’s prose nevertheless confronts an intractable dilemma. His language can lack the coherence and more definite structure found in most modern sentences, which are rendered more readily intelligible by logically ordered rather than rhetorical punctuation and relatively frequent end-stops. The second sentence of Of Reformation, for example, runs to 375 words. Modernizing, we break this unit up into three sentences of 191, 88, and 96 words. Of course any editorial choice is a compromise, and we are painfully aware that the gain in readability comes at the cost of damping the forward thrust of Milton’s prose as well as its intellectual flex and amplitude. Versions of these texts with original spelling and punctuation are available online and in university libraries, and we hope that readers drawn to a particular passage or work will consult them.
The prose selections in this volume largely correspond, though with significant additions, to the selections in our Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. We have gathered and selected prose works first of all for their intrinsic excellence. Few would question the merit of Milton’s abiding classics Areopagitica, the first book devoted to freedom of the press, and Of Education, his remarkable outline for the reform of contemporary pedagogy. There is also a great deal of fascinating self-reflection throughout his polemical tracts, scattered like the dismembered body of an autobiography. We have reprinted such excerpts from The Reason of Church Government, An Apology for Smectymnuus, and the Second Defense of the English People, as well as a group of his familiar letters and two of his early “prolusions,” or academic exercises. Our selections from the polemical Of Reformation and Eikonoklastes display the fervor of Milton’s religious and political commitments. In a significant addition to the works represented in our earlier volume, this updated edition includes a sampling of Milton’s Commonplace Book, which opens a window on decades of Milton’s reading and on his remarkably engaged and critical reliance on others’ arguments as he goes about constructing his own.
Early on, though confident in his powers as a poet, Milton seems somewhat uneasy in the medium of prose. The result in his early polemics directed at the bishops (here, Of Reformation, The Reason of Church Government, and An Apology for Smectymnuus) is a vivid, image-laden style that at times becomes undisciplined. A quieter, more assured style marks the two divorce tracts, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and Tetrachordon. We reprint substantial portions of these books. Increasingly viewed as pivotal in Milton’s career, they reflect the chastening experience of his initially unhappy first marriage as he faces the challenge of interpreting Scripture against the grain of its apparent sense. In two other works, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (which in this edition, with the inclusion of Milton’s citations of Reformed authorities, is complete) and The Ready and Easy Way, the reader will be able to follow the full development of arguments that establish Milton as a major political thinker and simultaneously show him reacting in personal ways to the pressure of great events, as one king is beheaded and another, his son, is crowned eleven years later. The final set of selections, from Milton’s theological treatise Christian Doctrine, though reduced from the selections in our Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, remains extensive. After two decades of unpersuasive challenges, the question of Milton’s authorship of this unorthodox treatise has been firmly settled in the affirmative. We are convinced of its signal importance for understanding the beliefs embedded in his major poems.
The fortunes of Milton’s prose have varied with time. The prose works have been more intensely read (or at least cited) over the last forty years than they were during Milton’s lifetime. Even the undeniably great Areopagitica made no great splash when first published. The 1644 edition was the only edition until 1697, nearly a quarter century after Milton’s death. The Eikonoklastes fared somewhat better, with the first edition of 1649 followed by a second in 1650, but the brevity of the interval presumably owes more to the interests and sponsorship of the ruling Council of State than it does to public demand for the book. In stark contrast, the book’s target, Charles I’s Eikon Basilike, was wildly popular, going through thirty-five editions in the first year in London alone, not counting those printed elsewhere.
Many of Milton’s prose works are radically polemical, so much so that Restoration readers, whether out of prudence or conviction, generally chose either to ignore the prose or to condemn it as a blot on the poet’s reputation. The attack on episcopacy infuriated supporters of the Church of England; the defense of divorce for incompatibility put him at odds with the literal sense of the Gospels; the advocacy of bringing to justice a king turned tyrant made him anathema among triumphant and often vindictive royalists. John Egerton, the Earl of Bridgewater, who played the role of the Elder Brother in Milton’s Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, inscribed his copy of Milton’s Defense of the English People, now in the Huntington Library, “Liber igni, Author furcâ, dignissimi/the book is most deserving of burning, the author of the gallows.” Egerton’s harsh judgment epitomizes a general hostility toward Milton during the Restoration, when Cavalier writers entertained their readers by imagining his humiliation and execution or by deriding his blindness and otherwise denigrating him and his work. In the early 1660s, before the appearance of his late, major poems could begin to blunt the edge of notoriety he had earned as a prose controversialist, Milton vividly paints the situation in which he found himself, “fall’n on evil days,/ … and evil tongues;/In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,/And solitude” (Paradise Lost 7.25–28). The official cultural attitude during the Restoration seems to have been that Milton’s vicious attacks on Charles had consigned him and all his works to oblivion, as the Royalist poet and biographer William Winstanley insisted in his Lives of the Most Famous English Poets: “his fame is gone out like a candle in a snuff, and his memory will always stink, which might have ever lived in honorable repute had not he been a notorious traitor and most impiously and villainously belied that blessed martyr, King Charles the First” (195).
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