Sunday, August 3, 2014


At University Press Books on Bancroft in Berkeley on Friday I found a small blue hardbound volume from Oxford University Press, The English Poems of John Milton, printed in 1946. Extremely compact, yet more than 500 pages, easy to read, yet with enough space even for all the long poems as well as the short. This particular copy was signed on the flyleaf by an early owner and has indeed been read, but remains in perfect shape. The price to me, twelve dollars.

Inside the book, on the page preliminary to the opening of Paradise Lost, are printed the two following messages 

The Printer to the Reader

Courteous Reader, there was no Argument at first intended to the book, but for the satisfaction of many that have desired it, I have procured it, and withal a reason of that which stumbled many others, why the poem rimes not.
S. Simmons


The measure of English heroic verse without rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin  rime being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have expressed them. Not without cause, therefore, some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note have rejected rime both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no musical delight; which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings  a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and in all good oratory. This neglect then of rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set  the first in English  of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming. 

Milton wrote this aggressive paragraph as his answer to early readers of Paradise Lost who complained because the author had not taken the trouble to make the poem rhyme. The engraving above was first published in 1645 as the frontispiece to an edition of collected poems published when the author was 37. He very much disliked this engraving, and himself insisted on the four lines of Greek verse underneath it, again aggressively defending his territory 

That an unskillful hand had carved this print
You'd say at once, seeing the living face;
But, finding here no jot of me, my friends,

Laugh at the botching artist's mis-attempt. 

 translation by David Masson, from The Life of John Milton