‘A dainty peece of entertainment’: John Milton’s early poems

Our second featured item is a very rare book, the first printed edition of poems by the author of Paradise Lost, one of the towering works of English literature.  Milton’s career as a poet was disrupted by the English Civil War, and then by the Restoration, when as a ‘regicide’ he spent months in hiding and in prison.  The epic Paradise Lost was finally completed in 1663, after years of dictation by the blind author.  It went on to become one of the most influential poems in the English canon, with its use of classical forms adopted from Virgil and Dante, and with its heroic depiction of Satan.

The book recently added to College Library’s collection contains the poems from the early part of Milton’s life, and reflect a world untouched by the imminent political upheavals. Included are pious works, such as On the morning of Christ’s nativity. Composed 1629; juvenilia; a series of sonnets in Italian, which, with the two long poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso demonstrate the influence on Milton of his Italian trip in 1638; and the masque written for the Earl of Bridgewater and his family, Comus. Included with Comus is a printed letter from Eton’s Provost, Sir Henry Wotton, commending the poem as ‘a dainty peece of entertainment’.  The second portion of the book contains Milton’s poems in Latin, part of his oeuvre now neglected but by his contemporaries considered to be par excellence.

As well as the book’s rarity, it also has typographical beauty to recommend it. The setting of all the verses on their pages, with broad margins and precise impressions, makes the book a delight to read.  We are extremely pleased to be able to show Milton’s poems in such a winning format, as they were read by his first audience.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

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Portrait of John Milton: frontispiece to Poems of John Milton (London, 1645)