Catalogue Preliminaries



The influence of the intellect of John Milton on his contemporaries and on the modern world cannot be underestimated. Both directly and indirectly the impact of his thought can be seen in literature, philosophy, theology and the English language itself; his imagination produced such felicitous neologisms as ecstatic, jubilant and cherubic. As the university where he studied and wrote some of his earliest works, Cambridge takes great pride in marking 400 years since Milton’s birth. The University Library, although of course no longer situated in the building where he studied, is a place in which he might have found great inspiration, as do new generations of students, researchers and authors. From manuscripts in Milton’s own hand to contemporary interpretations of his poems, this exhibition brings together a great variety of works by and about one of the greatest thinkers of the seventeenth century.

           Considerable attention is, naturally, focused on Paradise lost, with printed editions on display tracing developments both in the annotation and the illustration of the poem. We are indebted to Milton’s own college, Christ’s, for the loan of the contemporary receipt for a payment for Paradise lost, and a copy of Richard Bentley’s controversial 1732 edition with the exasperated manuscript marginalia of the poet William Cowper. Yet there is much more to the man than this one work. We are honoured to be able, through the generosity of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, to give a rare public viewing of what has been called ‘the single most important poetical autograph of the seventeenth century’, the manuscript containing ‘Lycidas’, Comus and numerous sonnets and shorter poems. Next to this we see Milton’s own corrections to the earliest printed text of ‘Lycidas’, amendments noticed only in 1866. Of particular local interest are early poems marking the death in 1631 of Hobson, the university carrier after whom the conduit and street (and ‘choice’) are named, in a manuscript kindly lent to us by St John’s College. The exhibition also demonstrates the inspiration of his less widely known poems to the creation not just of striking illustrations (such as Arthur Rackham’s beautiful Comus) but also music and dance, as in Mark Morris’s interpretation of Handel’s setting of L’allegro, Il penseroso ed Il moderato.

           Milton’s political and philosophical foresight is shown in texts on divorce, freedom of the press, and monarchy, including scarce first editions of the Areopagitica and Tetrachordon. He wrote in 1644 that ‘books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are … they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’ We hope this exhibition presents the living intellect of Milton and his heirs to a new generation, and inspires poetry, politics and passion anew in our own day.

Peter Fox
University Librarian


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 Nearly 380 years ago, in the hall of Christ’s College, one of our young undergraduates—not for the first or the last time—broke with tradition. The start of the long vacation of 1628 was marked as usual by oratorical student showpieces in Latin. But a certain John Milton decided it was time to use the vernacular too:

Hail native language, that by sinews weak
Didst move my first endeavouring tongue to speak,
And mad’st imperfect words with childish trips,
Half unpronounced, slide from my infant lips,
Driving dumb silence from the portal door,
Where he had mutely sat two years before:
Here I salute thee and thy pardon ask,
That now I use thee in my latter task…

English literature was not exactly in its infancy in 1608, the year of Milton’s birth. But he brought it to a maturity that could not have been envisioned.

           It is to celebrate the breadth and brilliance of Milton’s contribution to English literature and history that we at Christ’s College—along with partners across the University—are marking the 400th anniversary of the year of his birth. Through lectures, readings, concerts, performances, and an educational website we aim to draw attention to Milton’s legacy—not only as a poet, of course, but as polemicist, political theorist, and religious thinker, and as hero and model for the generations of poets who followed him.

           At the centre of this year of celebration is the present exhibition, one we are delighted to support. Based around the University Library’s holdings and incorporating several items from Christ’s College’s own collections, it also includes treasures from Trinity and St John’s Colleges, to whom we are warmly grateful. We are also indebted to Christopher Ricks, an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s and one of the most influential Milton scholars of recent times, for contributing the introduction to this catalogue. We hope you enjoy the exhibition, and that it inspires you to turn, or return, to Milton’s writings and to find out more about his extraordinary life. We hope also that you will be able to join us for some of our other events throughout the year, details of which may be found at the back of this catalogue.

           The motto of the foundress of Christ’s College, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was souvent me souvient—‘I often remember’. We last celebrated Milton in this way one hundred years ago, in 1908, and perhaps that is not often enough. But we hope this exhibition will show that Milton’s presence in our culture has been and remains such a dominant one that, in truth, he has seldom been out of our thoughts.

Professor Frank Kelly FRS
Master of Christ’s College


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John Milton, born 9 December 1608; died, c. 8 November 1674

A man to honour, he was noble in honouring others. This, when he was in his early twenties:

What needs my Shakespear for his honour’d Bones,
The labour of an age in piled Stones,
Or that his hallow’d reliques should be hid
Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid?

No more than Shakespeare does our Milton stand in need of tributes. He is the great river (‘Down the great River to the op’ning Gulf’); others, but his tributaries. There has been no true writer in English who has not had to wrestle with him, angel-wise. It is we who stand in need of his exemplary courage, his cosmic imagination, and his divining inspiration. He warrants the praise that he gave to his supreme predecessor: ‘Thou in our wonder and astonishment | Hast built thy self a live-long monument.’

           This exhibition at the Cambridge University Library is a worthy monument, the more so because it partakes of Milton’s surprising self-abnegation, a virtue in him that is paradoxically in combination with his justified confidence in all that the self could be and could achieve. Pride, the sin that most fascinated him, is the only one of the seven deadly sins that can be a virtue.

                             Oft times nothing profits more
Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right
Well manag’d;

( Paradise lost, Book VIII, 571–3)

Milton weighs every scruple. Not, ‘Nothing profits more than self-esteem’; rather, that ‘Oft times’ this is so, but only provided that the self-esteem is ‘grounded on just and right’—and even this is not enough, for around the corner there is a further admonition, another warning sign: ‘…grounded on just and right | Well manag’d’. How well, with what superb self-knowledge, knowledge of all our selves, does Milton manage these exacting passionate precisions.

           The celebrations one hundred years ago at the British Academy in December 1908, for a mere tercentenary, were honoured by the presence of the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and of the Master of Christ’s College. George Meredith did his best to laud the great poet, but Meredith’s poem was no great thing. Sir Frederick Bridge stirringly illustrated ‘ Milton and Music’. But the heart of the matter was the paean to liberty, to Milton’s conception of liberty and to his ranging engagements with it,

identified under all the chief aspects of national life—marriage, education, and freedom from tyranny of Church and State in the expression of thought. Freedom was here, as elsewhere, the cause for which Milton strove, and the love which fired his soul.

It is a fine thought that what was said then is still the central thought a century later. ‘The most conspicuous thing in the building’, reported The Times, ‘was a great wreath of laurel… On either side of the wreath were the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, indicating the homage which all English-speaking people desire to pay to the blind poet of the Commonwealth’. Milton endures.

           He endured a great deal. True, his young life was only troubled, not agonized. Christ’s College taught him much and vexed him somewhat. Poetic accomplishment in the art of funeral elegy (‘Lycidas’), in the religiously revelatory (‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’), and in the mixed mode of masque (Comus): these masteries bade fair for the life of art, the life of an artist. But public life did more than beckon, it urged. Milton’s pamphlets—too light, the word pamphlet, for his fierce gravity—took up the challenge, and took on the prelates, the theologians, the kings and magistrates, the censors (Areopagitica, the most unignorable of such works till John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty re-framed it all). War and its blind fury. Blindness. Cromwell, indispensable and flawed. Milton’s duties as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, under the Council of State. God’s Englishman, sometimes tempted to act as Englishmen’s God. Marital misery, discovered and recovered from. High achievement in the face of all that threatened his life, in both senses of what a life is. Paradise lost in 1667. Samson Agonistes in 1671, and Paradise regained. As in any life, much is here for tears, but (and that’s true too),

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame, nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

(Samson Agonistes, 1721–4)

           The author of ‘Lycidas’, of Comus, of ‘L’allegro’ and ‘Il penseroso’, of the sonnets that are fierce and those that are tender, and of Samson Agonistes, would be among England’s great poets even if he had never created Paradise lost. But he is among the world’s great poets because he gave the world one more epic poem, to add to the very few from the ancient world. The modern world has had other valuable things to do with its epic ambitions than to fashion them into epic poems; the impulses that animate such aspirations—religious awe, national pride, narrative momentum—have sought other channels: The decline and fall of the Roman empire, War and peace…. So that Milton is something more than the greatest of our epic poets, he is nonpareil.

           ‘His natural port is gigantick loftiness’, wrote the most stringently appreciative of Milton’s critics, Samuel Johnson. But Milton knew the value of being, on due occasion, down-to-earth. ‘Lycidas’ pays tribute not only to classical ancestors but to local mentors: to Cambridge, and (some believe) to Joseph Mead, a fellow of Christ’s. So I should like to end not with praise of the sublime but on a personal note, with a tribute to teachers of mine. By a fruitful coincidence, my schoolteachers at King Alfred’s School disagreed about Paradise lost. For Mr Harrison it was the bright monument that C. S. Lewis praised, and for Mr Swan it was the white elephant that F. R. Leavis dispraised. So I learnt that it was of the nature of artistic creativity that it might move sensitive sensible people to creative dissent. And learnt, too, that a poem may be great because it admits you to a body of convictions not your own. Milton’s convictions, which some people valuably believe and others no less valuably entertain, are alive in his art and in this live-long exhibition.

Christopher Ricks


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