Melville and Milton: An Edition and Analysis of Melville's Annotations on Milton.
In 1849 Herman Melville acquired a two-volume set of The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited by John Mitford and published in 1836 by Hilliard, Gray and Co. Over the next twenty years, he read and annotated the text three times. After his death in 1891, the books dropped out of sight until the 1980s, when they were eventually bought by Princeton University. Robin Grey published an account of some of the annotations in Milton Quarterly and in her book The Complicity of Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). She was subsequently invited by John Bryant to edit a double issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies (October 2002), which contained a transcription of Melville's annotations and five commissioned essays on Melville and Milton. This work now 'takes on new life and broader circulation' (p. xiii) under the imprint of Duquesne University Press.
In her introduction, Grey draws on Melville's annotations of Milton's text to show how the seventeenth-century poet both provoked the later writer 'to artistic competition in depicting the sublime' and provided 'a measure of companionship as they both explored religious heresies and civil wars in their respective ages' (p. xxii). In the first of the five interpretative essays, Bryan C. Short argues that the fusion of sublimity and allegory in Moby-Dick was at odds with Melville's Romantic milieu, and places his practice in 'the Miltonic, Longinian, and neoclassical tradition' (p. 10). He supports his case with a reading of Pip's experiences in 'The Castaway' section of the novel and an account of the 'conflation of allegorical elements drawn from Paradise Lost' in Pierre (p. 13). Leslie E. Sheldon finds detailed sources for Ahab's pride and humiliation in Milton's portrait of Satan, citing various tree similes, the stairway to heaven that aggravates the Devil's 'sad exclusion from the doors of Bliss', and the war in heaven, which supplied a model for the final contest with the White Whale. Grey's own essay makes more direct use of Melville's annotations to reveal how his rereading of Milton in 1860 informed the poems (mostly written towards the end of the Civil War) that comprise Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War (1866). In particular, the war in heaven offered the American poet 'a revision, and a critique, of the martial epic mode' (pp. 47-48) and his interpretation of Paradise Lost as 'a failed theodicy' (p. 50) underpinned his attempt 'to break the cycle of apocalyptic thinking--persecution, judgement, vindication' (p. 65) in a plea for tolerance towards the defeated South. Melville's 'quarrel with God' is pursued further in John T. Shawcross's analysis of the long poem Clarel, which leads to the conclusion that both poets, 'working in the same arenas of philosophic uncertainty' (p. 71), came to accept 'Conscience--Milton's God's umpire' as the best guide for humankind (p. 86). Melville's annotations suggest to David V. Urban that, if 'we read Clarel through the lens of Samson Agonistes' (p. 94), we see more clearly Melville's rejection of the Miltonic belief that God can sometimes communicate with his followers 'in an intelligible way' (p. 105).
The transcription that occupies the second half of the volume meticulously reproduces the markings made by Melville in Mitford's edition of Milton-underlinings, vertical scorings in the margin, crosses, ticks, and verbal comments--and in each case sufficient unmarked text is printed 'to provide context for the targeted lines' (p. 115). As Douglas Robillard suggests--and as the foregoing essays amply demonstrate--these marginalia are clearly 'the working notes of a professional author' (p. 113). They also offer a fascinating insight into the mindset of a radical nineteenth-century reader who impatiently glossed an allusion to the doctrine of election as 'that theological fiction' (p. 127), readily assumed that words 'Put into Satan's mouth' were 'spoken with John Milton's tongue' (p. 173), and regretted 'the deforming effect of the intrusion of partizan topics & feelings of the day' into 'Lycidas' (p. 196). Students of both writers and periods will find much to stimulate further thought in this useful and carefully produced volume.
University of Birmingham
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2006|
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