'Poetry lost': rude rhyme rediscovered, attributed to John Milton

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Friday, September 24, 2010

A researcher at the University of Oxford has found a saucy poem attributed to John Milton, the 17th-century poet who wrote Paradise Lost and other religious verse. "An Extempore Upon a Faggot", discovered in an 18th-century anthology of poetry, is not thought by modern scholars to be by Milton, however, and may in fact have been written by one of his rivals in an attempt to disgrace him.

The Radcliffe Camera at the University of Oxford, part of the Bodleian Library, in which the poem was found
Image: David Iliff.

The poem was found by Dr Jennifer Batt, who said that it "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." She discovered the rude verse in the Harding Collection of poetry anthologies held by the Bodleian Library, the main university library at Oxford. "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", she added.

The book in question, the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany from 1708 (over 30 years after Milton's death), was described by another Oxford academic, Dr Abigail Williams, as "a set of poems written by witty young men about town for witty young men about town". Milton wrote in blank verse rather than using rhyme and used differing poetic rhythms, whereas the handwritten poem uses a simple pattern of rhyming couplets as it contrasts the sexual behaviour of young women and more experienced women by comparing them to green wood and dry wood upon a fire.

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

Milton (1608–1674) wrote many influential religious poems, including Paradise Lost, which is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as "widely and rightly regarded as the supreme poetic achievement in the English language, fit to sit alongside the poems of Homer, Virgil, and Dante." It tells the story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in an epic theological poem. He followed it with Paradise Regained, depicting the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

Bawdy poetry is not thought by modern academics to be in keeping with Milton's style, with Batt suggesting that it is likely that his name was added to the poem "to bring scandal upon [him], perhaps by a jealous contemporary." She suggests that the culprit might have been Sir John Suckling, a poet who was a supporter of the monarchy, in contrast to the Republican Milton.

The University of Oxford is currently digitising the songbooks and anthologies of the Harding Collection, said to be the world's largest such collection, as part of a project to allow online access. It is named after Walter Harding, a British musician who collected music and poetry in Chicago. The poem had been read before, but without anyone noticing Milton's name at the bottom. Dr Williams, the project's leader, expressed her doubts as to the authenticity of the attribution, commenting that "[y]ou could become very rich and famous – well, famous, anyway – if you could prove the rhyme was really by Milton. I am pretty certain it is not."