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Happy 405th Birthday, John Milton!
Four hundred and five year olds throw the sickest parties.
Columbia University is making a landmark in American scholarship and a monument to a great poet’s fame. Under the general editorship of Frank Allen Patterson, a staff of editors consisting of Professors Abbott, Ayres, Clark, Erskine, Haller, Krapp, and Trent, are bringing together the manuscripts and the early editions of Milton’s works, for the purpose not only of giving us a final text but of publishing the first complete edition of the poet ever to appear.1 Over a period of about five years the volumes will come off the press until eighteen have been issued. The format and material construction of the books are exemplary; the paper is a fine quality of rag, the binding of the library edition a durable brown cloth; and the printing has been expertly done by Mr. William Edwin Rudge. The two first volumes, each of which is divided into two parts separately bound, contain all the poetry, English, Italian, Latin and Greek. These are now before us.
From the time of Addison’s praise of Milton in 1694, the stream of criticism has carried the poet to our own day, the most referred to, but, in the last half-century, the least read of all the great poets. The scholars know him but the poets do not, and on the whole it must be said that we flatter him with neglect. We must not be misled by the dubious fact that every year sees the publication of enough critical routine about Milton to bemuse the whole of any man’s time. In the most important sense the poet is without influence. His style, his “philosophy,” his methods of composition, above all his attitude toward his material, have had no effect on the best poets since Tennyson. There is enough exegesis left to be done on Milton to entertain the profession of letters forever: “Lycidas” alone is one of those jokers that will always beguile the historical critic who cannot understand what is meant when one says that it is a great poem meaning nothing. Textual interpretation and biography have their own value; one hopes that all the problems may some time be solved. There is one new and great problem for the historical critic, who, however, had also better be a philosopher: we now hear that the Massonized Milton was fiction, that Milton’s Puritanism was the most convenient set of terms in that age into which he might throw the whole energy of an insight that exceeded all brands of nonconformity. This new Milton will probably win a large new following among those men who do not know they are living in the backwash of the Renaissance and can thus enjoy it. The new Milton is a Renaissance hero. It is to be hoped that neither Masson nor the Renaissance can keep him from being a poet, or us from seeing that no historical controversy is so important as the task of making him available to the living poets. If the complete edition of his works is to perform its full duty, it must make Milton influence poetry once more. In order to accomplish this, he must stand before us in the full significance of his supreme craftsmanship.
More at the New Republic.