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John Milton wrote pulp poetry? Not likely

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I know my next topic probably has very limited appeal, but since John Milton is the behind the name of this blog, “Our Daily Train,” it seems like any new news about Milton deserves a brief airing.

Credit: Getty Images; Milton was known for his political and religious poems.

According to this BBC story, a rather seedy poem was discovered recently by scholars at Oxford University that was, at least by some, initially attributed to Milton. The eight-line poem dates from the mid-17th century, when Milton was writing, and has since been attributed to a scant few others authors, namely John Dryden, Sir John Suckling and John Wilmot. I know you can’t wait to read its (Miltonic?) devilishness, so here it is:

An Extempore upon a Faggot

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green
How coyly it receives the Heat
And at both ends do’s weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid
When first upon her Back she’s laid
But like dry Wood th’ experienced Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.

Here’s a brief summation of the poem from The Guardian:

The coarse, and frankly misogynistic verse likens a young woman to a faggot, a bunch of damp sticks, which, when cast upon the fire, produces moisture “at both ends”, like (according to the poem) a weeping virgin when sexually aroused. By contrast, the more sexually experienced woman is more like dry wood, which becomes joyfully enflamed when put on the fire.

Jennifer Batt, an English literature academic at Oxford apparently came across the poem while sifting through the Harding Collection located in the Bodleian Library. According to Batt,

To see the name of John Milton, the great religious and political polemicist, attached to such a bawdy epigram is extremely surprising to say the least. The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work that if the attribution is correct it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton.

It is likely that Milton’s name was used as an attribution to bring scandal upon the poet, perhaps by a jealous contemporary.

This is a pretty likely theory, since Milton didn’t make too many friends in his day. First, through his poetry, he constantly claimed and channeled divine inspiration for many of his works, inside the works themselves, as in the introduction to “Paradise Lost,” where Milton summons the Holy Spirit to guide him in writing the epic poem:

And chiefly thou O Spirit … Instruct me … what in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support; / That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.

Milton’s writing about his calling as a great poet is flush with examples throughout his poetic and prose works.

Second, he was against the rule of a monarch and seemed to set up an analogy between the king and Satan in “Paradise Lost” and advocated the execution of Charles I. He also wrote a tract called “Areopagitica” that served as an early call for freedom of speech in the wake of the government attempting to quell anti-government tracts from being published. After the king was restored following the English Revolution, Milton found himself in jail for a brief period because of his stance against the monarchy.

And on top of all that, he barely wrote about anything other than religion, politics or himself! While Milton was by no means a conformist on any level, topics like love and lust would have probably seemed beside the point for him, a man consumed with his own future celebrity, the fate of his home country and religion.

That said, John Wilmot, a writer known for his bawdiness, may indeed be a more likely culprit.

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As a side note, a full reading of “Paradise Lost” is highly recommended, and the work approaches something like a transcendent experience. The poem itself is just, or more, sublime than the gods, angels and demons of which Milton chose for his subjects. I am currently watching a video lecture series on Milton at academicearth.org and may have more Milton-inspired musings as I go along.

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