“-producing editions is one of the ways we produce literary meaning” -Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition
hen I first read John Milton, I was a sophomore in college at DePaul University. In that early survey course that set me on my current literary path, we used Merrit Hughes’ Complete Poems and Major Prose as our text. I still have the edition and it has an almost totemic quality for me, being the first edition through which I was able to meet Milton in the process he highlighted in Areopagitica. In subsequent undergraduate semesters I would place the book in a plastic bag to protect it from my commute, and I sheathed it with care in bubble wrap when I moved away from home. In those early years of my study of literature, the nature of the edition and its extensive footnotes (that often take up more than half the page) were beyond my consideration. The professor for the course would often derive interpretation and explicit understanding from the footnotes, and I for many semesters of study thought nothing of the theoretical implications of the footnotes or the presentation of Milton’s work in the Hughes’ edition. They were there to help me objectively understand what was going on in a very alliterative text written many centuries ago, and nothing more.
In defense of my naivety, such oversights are common with my students in first year composition. Books are often treated as intrinsic items dropped without interference from the intellect of the divine author, perched atop the throne of authorship with a fist planted on a thoughtful chin. In an era where reading is declining, many students feel that if they have found it in a book it must be true simply because they went to the trouble to procure and skim the damn thing. Even amongst literature students, we often only consider editorial concerns in spectacular cases such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Henry James’ Daisy Miller when two substantially different editions of the same text exist.
Yet the way editors such as Merrit Hughes frame texts with paratextual footnotes, end notes, prologues, epilogues, introductions, and indexes fundamentally alters how we as readers interact with a text. We will read a postmodern novel differently if the introduction is written by Toni Morrison and engages with the dynamic of race in the novel just as we will read a Renaissance text differently if it is neatly filed under a section titled “Tracts” in an anthology. The frame we put around a text is central in the creation of the boundaries of genre and criticism by which we understand literature (1). I am not here to suggest that we should shatter these boundaries and reach for a euphoric, true understanding that transcends editorial limitations. I am instead here to advocate, with Jerome McGann, that these boundaries must be understood and openly acknowledged as fundamentally interpretive and not a mere question of objective understanding. Understanding the editorial heuristics used in the creation of a book (not a text) is critical not only in understanding texts as products of a “living intellect” (2) but also understanding literary criticism in general as a richly diverse field with many heuristics.
Specifically in the Hughes’ edition of Milton’s work, we find footnotes and editorial structure that favors a very specific reading of Milton by exclusion more than by dubious inclusion. This is useful in our understanding of editorial work as hermeneutical, as the move to exclude key insights in favor of others is fundamentally interpretive and dependent on a critical choice. Throughout the edition, we find a consistent favoring in Hughes’ footnotes of Shakespearean and classical allusions. As we will see in two key portions of the epic, Hughes ignores critical interregnum allusions in favor of occasionally convoluted classical or Shakespearean explanations. A reader who has read my blog to any measurable degree (3) will know that I personally favor political criticism and a Marxist heuristic when criticizing literature, yet as highlighted above it is not that Hughes’ has made an interpretation that is the problem. The problem lies in the nascent acceptance of footnotes and other paratextual information as something that does not fundamentally alter the way we understand a text. When we look at the Hughes’ edition of Paradise Lost, we find the opposite. A distinct reading of the epic is encouraged, and another is discouraged.
Book II is perhaps the most famous book of the entire epic, as the reader is shown via three speeches by leading demons the political dynamics of the Satanic citadel of Pandaemonium. The beginning of Book II is commonly studied for its display of what Milton establishes as faulty rhetoric and reasoning as the epic progresses. Interestingly, Hughes gives almost no political background in the footnotes for the three speeches that so intimately interact with the politics of both the Monarchy and the Long Parliament.
This can be seen most clearly in Satan in his sections of Book II. In the first lines of Book II Satan is depicted as sitting on a “Throne of Royal State” to which he was raised by “merit.” Hughes makes a footnote of this, but instead suggests a connection to Spenser’s description of the throne of Lucifera, incarnate pride. Of course, Spenser derived his own depiction of a throne which he described as adorned by “a cloth of state” from English experience. Rather than alluding to what many college students will be ignorant to in the description of the throne as a symbol of everything wrong with the English Monarchy both spiritually and with regards to secular political formations, Hughes chooses to allude to a Spenserian reference to classical myth. The throne is fundamentally an idol, which was critical to Milton and his generation’s religious attacks on the institution of Monarchy. This is, certainly, worth at least mentioning with a footnote to denote to a reader that Milton is making a specific political reference.
Such cases are not cherry picked, however, as Hughes continues to lead the reader into a classical interpretation of the epic. Later in Book II, Satan is described as rising from his throne in the following terms,
with grave [ 300 ]
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seem’d
A Pillar of State; deep on his Front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And Princely counsel in his face yet shon,
Majestic though in ruin: sage he stood [ 305 ]
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest Monarchies; his look
Drew audience and attention still as Night
Or Summers Noon-tide air, while thus he spake.
Hughes footnotes the section, but suggests again that Milton is referring to the myth of Atlas as relayed by Spenser. Hughes here ignores a rather clear reference between Milton’s work – a rare and profitable critical insight. In Eikonoklastes, a critical text for any who wish to understand the way Milton constructs Satan’s character, Milton refers twice to “pillars” in the context of being covered in the gold of fabricated zeal. The concept of fabrication is key, as on the very same line Milton uses the concept of an engraving – an undeniably artificial metaphor. What’s more, what is graven on Satan’s face is taken directly from Eikonoklastes.
These were not some miscarriages onely of Goverment, which might escape, but a universal distemper and reducement of law to arbitrary power; not through the evil counsels ofsome men, but through the constant cours & practice of all that were in highest favour: whose worst actions frequently avowing he took upon himself; and what faults did not yet seem in public to be originally his, such care he took by professing, and proclaiming op’nly (emphasis is mine), as made them all at length his own adopted sins. The persons also when he could no longer protect, he esteem’d and favour’d to the end; but never, otherwise then by constraint, yeilded any of them to due punishment; thereby manifesting that what they did was by his own Autority and approbation (4)
Clearly, the insights from Eikonoklastes, something written by Milton himself, are critical to understanding the nature of the artifice Milton is describing here. It is not merely an artifice as can be discerned by reading what is objectively happening, it is an artifice based specifically in kingly lucre and pomp. In such a rendering, this section becomes central in understanding Satan as the catalyst in the demonic councils’ evil. Just like Charles I, Satan is making through open proclamations his sins the sins of everyone present. These insights are judged as less important than a Spenserian reference to classical myth.
Such an interpretive move has impacts beyond its point of origin. In Book III, compassion “appears” on Jesus’ face in a direct comparison to the graven care of Satan. The latter suggests an active display while the former is of a divine nature. Where Satan is a “pillar of state,” an image Milton previously in his career associated with gold, Jesus rises from no throne and engraves nothing but what is of his true nature. It is fairly important to realize that Satan is associated promptly with material wealth, falseness, and idolatry as well as the classical and Spenserian characters Hughes is keen to highlight. That is what is at the heart of Paradise Lost, the synthesis between classical and worldly failings and the hopeful look towards something new with “providence” as our guide.
The Hughes edition, as I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, has a special place in my heart and it is in many ways a very effective edition for a certain kind of reading of Paradise Lost. Yet, as I have endeavored to show here, critics as well as students need to be aware of the fact that editions and all the paratextual information they hold are not inert. Editions, especially for undergraduates reading texts with substantial and occasionally cryptic (to the modern reader) allusions, are key in the construction of literary meaning. The Hughes edition of Milton’s epic offers a lot of information for the potentially ignorant, yet it ignores other rather obvious insights from the world of Milton’s politics. This is fundamentally an interpretive move, and must be understood as such in order to accurately understand texts as something to be interpreted and not merely understood. Reading texts like Paradise Lost should be considered as walking from Eden with a guide of editorial providence and a myriad of choices to make, yet it is too often portrayed as the great satanic lie – that one item holds the key to everlasting knowledge.
(1) Jerome McGann highlights this dynamic with skill in his book The Textual Condition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the editorial shadow cast on literary criticism.
(2) Milton, Areopagitica
(3) Or even read the “About” page